The Top 10 Challenges for Female Business Leaders: My Interview with Evolutionary Carmen Voilleque

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The Top 10 Challenges for Female Business Leaders: My Interview with Evolutionary Carmen Voilleque


Every time I get the chance to hear Carmen Voilleque speak, she says something that makes the hair on my arms stand straight up. It is no coincidence that she and her business partner, Randy Harrington, co-wrote the book Evolutionaries. To me, Carmen is my most evolutionary friend. Her mind functions on such a meta level and yet, her commentary and observations are always beautifully succinct while also deeply profound.  Carmen and I became fast friends due to our deep love of supporting and developing women leaders.  I was lucky enough to be able to interview her for my book, Road Rules for Leading Ladies. I can’t wait to share her laundry list of the top 10 challenges that she says women must overcome in order to continue to soar in the business world today:

1. Women vastly under estimate their influence

Consider how high/low your ability is to change your circumstance?

2. Women wait too long to be an expert in the room

I see women defer to superiors or more experienced peers for much too long in their careers. Once you have achieved that seat at the table, make the assumption that you belong there. Men in business are experts at the game of bullshit. They have a knack for convincing anyone and everyone that they are right – even when they are dead wrong. Trust yourself. Speak up. Believe that what you have to say matters and that people should listen to you.

3. Mid level managers & executives often fall into the trap of ‘mama bear’ management: saving people vs. developing people

8/10 execs fall into this trap.

Through struggle, the greatest development occurs.  This is hard for female managers to watch.  Their instinct is to swoop in and save, versus teaching agency.

Beware of the powerful impulse to be parental in your management. As a manager, it is not your job to guard, defend and protect.

Women don’t want to see people suffer. Yes, you should use your role as a manager to remove key roadblocks, but you should not also remove all speed bumps, slippery roads, and terrain that may call for 4-Wheel drive while you are at it. A little struggle can go a long way when it comes to employee leadership development.

As a manager, your must support, challenge and nurture.

Ask yourself, what role does suffering play in your management style?

Women who are great at swooping in and protecting, often earn a reputation as “territorial”, “defensive”, or “reactive”, and are then sent people and problems by the organization that should most often be solved lower down the ranks among the employees involved, through guided struggle. . You become known as a “Dragon Lady” – and sending conflict your way guarantees drama and entertainment for those less courageous in the organization. But your warrior-like “mama bear” antics, while exciting to watch, end up creating dysfunction in the organization and more and more people shirk their responsibility to solve problems and resolve conflict on their own.  Sure, you save the day and efficiently solve problems, but in this noble effort, you end up stifling the development of leadership and influence qualities in the people around you.

Our capacity for compassion as women is our greatest strength, but women must be cautious not to let it become their Achilles heel. It is really difficult for these women not to defend their territory versus viewing the conflict situation as an opportunity for teaching and development.

It’s critical to adopt a meta view point of your stake in the company: “What’s good for this organization? How can we use instances of conflict to teach our staff to be more confident, courageous, and strong?

4.  Women do not reach out and accept offers of assistance and mentorship

Why? Many believe they have to be perfect.

And many had to be warriors to get there and then they don’t know how to be vulnerable.

A male CEO I work with that is widely regarded in his industry and often interviewed in trade magazines and business news once said to me, “The best leaders have coaches.”  He has a coach, and he is not afraid to talk about it openly. I have seen him say in Board meetings, “That is a good point, I’ll make a note to talk it over with my coach next week and get back to you.” He is unashamed about it. What he understands is that no matter how high you go in your career and no matter how experienced and recognized you are – you always need an objective “sounding board” for your ideas, plans and challenges. I see women managers and executives being offered coaching opportunities by their organizations and they more often than not turn it down. They say something like, “I don’t need coaching.” Or, “Is this some sort of comment on my performance?” they get defensive instead of jumping at the chance for professional development and improvement. This is a big mistake.

5.  In a down economy, the ‘boys club’ heightens and takes over even more power. Women underestimate this phenomenon.

In a land of scarcity, we get even more protective. The good ol boys look out for their own more than ever. Thus, we have to be more proactive in building our network.

6.  Women are not entrepreneurial enough both inside and outside of companies.

We have not been in the game long enough.  Thought we do have advantages.

Women are much more sensitive to the realities of the work/life blend. When we start new companies, they reflect that reality. And this is much more attractive to the next generation of talent – both men and women. Women have a jump on the competition when it comes to building business environments that will attract the next generation of talent.

Women are doing a tremendous amount of work in improving customer welfare (Community responsibility as a priority over profits).

Be Unconventional. When we live a life circumscribed by the expectations of others we lead a limited life. The greatest gift that you can give yourself is the permission to be different. Let go of your need to have everyone you love or care about understand your life choices. If you are truly going to fulfill your highest potential in your life and work, you will have to push boundaries, challenge notions of “acceptable behavior”, make mistakes and redefine the very notion of success as we know it. Meeting the expectations of those around you might feel nice, but it will also mean falling far short of your greatest capabilities and passion.

Women need to absolutely strive to be unconventional.  Consider whether you want to live within the confines that the person you are choosing to spend your life with lives by?

 7. Discover your life’s work

Passion is what makes us  brave and magnificent. Being truly courageous comes from caring about something deeply enough to sacrifice ourselves. So when you go in search of our passion, don’t ask “What do I like doing?” or “What gets me excited?”  insteak ask:  “What am I  willing to suffer for? (= not get paid for) The answer to this single  question will point to your life’s work. This is the place that you will make the most difference in the world and have the courage to do what it takes to leave a legacy for generations to come.

8.  Commit to becoming a strong public speaker

Just because you are uncomfortable speaking publicly does not mean you have the option to not become a stronger public speaker.  This is a skill you must master. Hire a coach, do whatever you have to in order to better yourself.

  9. Be an ally for other women

In 8-9 years we are going to see a lot of women headed into C-suites, as many men who are retiring are more willing to appoint a women as successor. Look for men who champion this evening of the playing field – there are a good number of men out there who care about inequality. Inequality is not just a women’s issue, it is a community issue. Look for the fathers, brothers, husbands, bosses and colleagues out there who care about equality of women just as much as we do. Find them, and make friends.

10.   The #1 most powerful tool is the power to ASK QUESTIONS

Women don’t ask enough questions. Triple the amount that you ask. Whether you are a new employee at the bottom of the organizational chart or the CEO, I guarantee that you are not asking enough questions. In fact, the higher we progress in our careers, the less we seem to ask. But asking questions is the number one way that you can obtain information – especially negative information. And we need negative information. The better you are at encouraging negative information to flow upward the better you will be at troubleshooting customer and employee problems, heading key complaints off at the pass, and preempting destructive conflict in your organization.

Be future oriented.

Believe in your agency to influence even if you are a glass half empty type of person.

Whether you are a “glass half empty” or a “glass half full” kind of personality the key to success is a belief in agency – in your power to change the future and your role in it. Whether an optimist or a pessimist, a “Pollyanna” or a “Realist” – the most successful people in world are those that operate under the assumption of “High Agency”. Believe in your ability to influence others, change your situation, and improve the future.


Thank you so much Carmen!  To learn more about Carmen’s work, go to Strategic Arts and Science.

We want to know if these challenges resonate with you and how you are working to champion them at your workplace?

By | 2013-01-21T17:55:24+00:00 January 21st, 2013|

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  1. Steve The Hurricane January 21, 2013 at 11:34 pm - Reply

    Good read Katie. I specifically liked Points 1 and 9. 1 – Think about how you influence your spouse or significant other, even children. Do you not think you influence your bosses or those with power? Behind every great man is a great _______ . Bingo! 9 – find those on your side, like THIS GUY! I like how you mentioned Fathers, Brothers, Husbands; there are many of US out here and we do believe in equality and will push for it.
    As a Marketing Business Coach/Business Seminar Leader, I find that 60% of my clients are women. 65% of my boot camp attendees are also women. Its a great time to be a woman in our country. Capitalize on it and write your own futures.

  2. Nathalie Molina Niño January 22, 2013 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    First, I agree with this list.

    However I also agree with the studies that tell us that people react better to the carrot than the stick. Ok that’s not what they say, but that’s the gist. I would love to see this list reframed to illustrate how women can play on their strengths to build skills that will help them excel. People (all people, men and women) perform better when they believe they have the skills/talent than when the skills are presented as aspirational (i.e. a project I have to work on).

    Consider this, a study where two co-ed groups are given different instructions but then asked to do the same negotiation exercise. One group is told that the key to being a good negotiator is to be aggressive and take no prisoners (I’m embellishing, but you get the idea), the other is told that to be a good negotiator you have to be empathetic and a great listener. Guess what happened?

    In the first group, the men FAR outperformed the women. In the 2nd? The women FAR outperformed the men. Same exercise. Same rules. Different set up.

    If we keep telling women all the things they aren’t good at, are we perhaps risking setting up our own game to our disadvantage?

    • Mary February 14, 2013 at 6:08 pm - Reply

      Your points are quite valid about women playing to our strengths in a scenario as you describe. I caution women to remember that the playing field is not filled with women as yet, and the game is not set up for women’s strengths to win. I agree more with Carmen’s suggestions. We need to acknowledge the game as it currently exists and prepare ourselves to succeed, while systematically trying to change the game to allow for some of our strengths to shine.

      Think of a mixed gender basketball game that requires shorts be worn to the knees. One woman has the brilliant idea that men and women on her team should wear short-shorts to distract the other team. No matter how brilliant the idea and whether the tactic of distraction (often used by women) would work, the referree won’t allow the team on the floor and thus they lose the game by forfeit. (perhaps long tight shorts would distract and be the answer:) – but you get my point)
      My example is an extreme, Just as you mention embellishing –
      For women to assume that we can substitute our strengths and win is naiive. The Men’s Club is strong and tight. The Women’s Club on the other hand is not even existent in most cases and often ‘catty’ and ‘back stabbing’ – women hurt themselves often. Just as there are those men who support women in business, there are those women who are great mentors and supporters and trustworthy allies. Seeking a support base of like-minded women and men and stepping up to play in the game that exists is crucial. If I cry every time I get knocked to the floor, I better not choose to play b’ball with the men.

  3. legacybuildercoaching January 23, 2013 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Oh very wise one, Nathalie (Happy Birthday by the way!), thank you so much for this thoughtful response. It really struck me and has caused me to think deeply about how we continue to frame this conversation. Here’s a response from Carmen, via her Facebook page in response to your commentary:

    “Your colleague makes a great point. It is never good to talk in absolutes and as a huge advocate for women, I don’t want to make any woman feel that she is “wrong” or “right”. But we all make “mistakes.” And the good thing about mistakes is they are often easily fixed with a small adjustment here or a little extra reflection there. Framing the conversation in “mistakes” and “advice” might still be too black and white though, and we should think about this. I want to be clear that it is not my intent to “pick on” women – after all I could list 100’s of mistakes I see men making every day in business – many more than women!! haha But my focus is on women because I have dedicated a good part of my life to helping them succeed. Back in my years of playing basketball, my best coaches were those quick to point out the “mistakes” i was making and offer the “advice” i needed real-time to make on-the-fly adjustments and course corrections that could change the game while we were still in it. It worked for me. But that, of course, does not mean it works for everyone.”

  4. Susan Downs January 28, 2013 at 2:49 am - Reply

    I enjoyed the article and the supportive tone in which it was written. I was confused by your last paragraph and the use of the word “agency.” I do not understand your comment “…the most successful people in the world are those that operate under the assumption of “High Agency.” Please explain.

    • legacybuildercoaching February 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm - Reply

      Susan, thank you very much for your response and forgive the delay in getting back to you. When Carmen was referring to ‘agency’, she was inferring to a belief that one has about themselves that they can truly impact their environment, life, career vs. having to enlist an external force to make a change. Does that make sense?

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