What a Female Boss Taught Me that My Macho Male Bosses Never Did

Over the course of my career, I worked mostly for, and with, a number of aggressive, high-achievement-oriented men. (I’ve also had many men of this same profile work for me.) As managers, these men were often quick to punish under performers but, they would rarely reward over performance with the same vigor. From them, I learned to perform at a high-level and not to expect much, if any, recognition. 

Since I primarily worked in sales organizations, these types of managers also tended to create scenarios in which people were forced to compete with one another for recognition, compensation, or other incentives. These managers would identify and reward superstars and leave others to keep hustling on their own, or remove them. They subscribed to the Jack Welch GE-era practice of getting rid of the bottom 10 percent every year. Glorification of the individual.

I was much like these individuals myself.

But then I had the opportunity to work for Sonja Farrand and I learned a whole different approach.

I learned that:

  • The most successful sales organizations are full of a different type of salesperson – people with relationship-building and empathic personalities, not the Type-A hard-chargers. If you hire higher EQ people from the outset, you will have less work to do, achieve your goals, and have a more harmonious organization. So I learned to hire for traits, NOT skills. You can always teach skills. In my experience, this is a counterintuitive approach than the one many male sales leaders take. 
  • Keeping these types of personalities happy and productive and preventing them from being poached by competitors has less to do with over-the-top financial remuneration than with regular/daily care and feeding. Sonja was an expert in the uses of Applause, Laughter and Recognition. This is what actually drives the majority of successful salespeople and sales leaders.
  • The term “servant-leadership” is not just a nifty phrase. It is a way of life for great leaders. When done authentically, people who work for you almost never quit. My experience is that few male managers get this at a deep level.

If you fully implement this leadership approach, recruiting the type of top talent you want becomes almost effortless. If you create a culture of servant leadership, people from other organizations will hear about it and form a line to come work for you. Effectively, you’ll create a sustainable, productive, healthy, and high-performing work environment and culture.

Many of my prior male mentors/bosses possessed some of the same qualities and outlook that Sonja has. But few were inclined to adopt it as a way of life and leadership, even when they knew intellectually that it was a superior (and more enjoyable) way to lead people. It requires trust and self-confidence for a leader to intentionally take what is seen as a “soft” approach to leadership.

Sonja’s leadership built a culture based on collaboration rather than on competition and compliance. Far from being a soft management approach, it was a very strong, successful leadership strategy. Once I internalized what Sonja instinctively knew – that “culture always trumps strategy” – I shared it with the managers and executives who worked for me. And, I only hired people who shared this understanding. This approach made a notable difference in my career success. 

When Sonja retired, our division’s success continued and I was promoted to take her place.