Why being “too aggressive” is a compliment for a leader
Much is being written right now about high performing men and women are described differently in reviews. Kimberly Weisul in Inc calls it an “insane double standard”, and Kieran Snyder who wrote up the original survey in Fortune points out the old truth professional women know:
Jane – who is a strong female – gets the feedback to be less aggressive whereas Joe – who is a strong male – gets the feedback to be more patient.
In Kieran’s survey a full 71% of women had negative feedback in their critical reviews, vs 2% of men. Why am I not surprised?
I’ve always been characterized as “too aggressive” and “too ambitious” in my reviews. From day one, until the day I became a CEO. Then the very same characteristics were praised – you are aggressive – that’s great!
When I wanted to recruit a world class board member to my board and identified Larry Sonsini (who I did not know) my board said “you’re being too aggressive, you’ll never recruit him” – and then I did. When the IPO market shut down after the dot.com bust and I needed to get my company public many people said “it can’t be done, you should just sell the company” – but I took it public in a very successful IPO in 2001 (with the help of Frank Quattrone and his CSFB banking team – Frank is very, very aggressive). When the financial market cratered in 2008/9 and we decided to pivot FirstRain to the enterprise it took every ounce of aggression and assertiveness to do it – and we did – with the result that FirstRain has significantly higher quality personal business analytics than anyone else because we cut our teeth on hedge fund managers.
For young women wanting to get ahead – especially if they want to be a GM or run their own company one day – I say be aggressive. Be a rebel. Stand up and be noticed – don’t conform. As Cindy Gallop (an original rebel) says you can’t change the world if you are worried about what other people think all the time.
And if you are a rebel, embrace it. There’s an interesting section in Ben Horowitz’ fantastic book The Hard Thing About Hard Things where he talks about When Smart People are Bad Employees. One such type is the Heratic – and two of the three examples he gives are indeed bad for your company. But one, the Rebel, may change the world for as he says “She is fundamentally a rebel. She will not be happy unless she is rebelling; this can be a deep personality trait. Sometimes these people actually make better CEOs than employee.”
I recognized myself when I read that. I am sure I was tough to manage. I am sure I got heaps of critical feedback because I was aggressive, and ambitious, and challenged the status quo every day. But it is those same characteristics that make me a leader and a (reasonably competent) CEO.
I did have to learn how to be kind with my strong personality though. Early on I was not always aware of the affect I had on other people. But once I figured that out then I let my aggressive personality blossom, and took care of the people who were following me.
So when someone tells you you are too aggressive and you need to tone it down smile and say “thank you” and keep going.