After three successful positions in regional locations for a Fortune 10 company, I was promoted to a senior vice president role in the company headquarters. It was the biggest career move of my life, one I had worked hard to achieve. It also meant I was about to become the only woman on a senior executive team that included 13 men at least 10 years older than myself.
A week into my new role, I gave my first presentation to this new peer group. As I was gathering my materials at the end of the meeting, the only other person left in the room was one of my new colleagues. I thought he had stayed to congratulate me.
Instead, he walked over, stood too close, and made a sexually inappropriate comment about how I looked in my suit. He then called me a vulgar name — a name meant to demean me in the worst way as a woman — and implied that all of my executive peers saw me this way.
I was speechless and angry. I had never experienced this kind of blatant hostility. It was shocking and insulting. Ultimately, I decided to use this moment to my advantage.
If the same thing happened today, in the context of the #MeToo movement, reporting the incident to HR might have made sense. But HR then was not HR now. Though the company was theoretically opposed to sexual harassment, the reality was that this kind of incident would have become nothing more than office gossip. So I chose not to tell anyone what he said; I didn’t want that word he called me to be associated with my name.
Instead, I chose to use the encounter as a catalyst for success.
I couldn’t allow myself to take this personally. That was hard because the attack was personal. I had a healthy ego — one I had to put aside to objectively assess myself and the situation. I realized that I had been naïve about HQ culture. I assumed my regional success would be welcomed in the home office. It never occurred to me that my new executive leadership team didn’t want me there. It would be lonely on that team if I didn’t come up with a solution.
To do this, I had to focus on what I wanted for myself and for my role at this company. I needed to be clear about what kind of leader I was meant to be and how I could translate that to my current situation. I had to stay focused on my job and our results. The work would speak for itself and prove I was the right person in the right job.
Learning to manage across
In previous roles, I focused on managing my team and “managing up,” or working well with my boss. But now I had to learn how to work well with my peers by “managing across.” I met individually with each of my peers to ask how my department could help theirs. I asked how my new department could help their departments succeed. I assigned someone from my team to be personally responsible for each of their departments, and held monthly meetings to discuss results and clarify next steps.
When talking with my peers, I started using more “you” language and checking in more frequently to make sure everyone was feeling heard. I asked my peers’ advice in solving problems — even when I didn’t really need it. And in senior staff meetings, I publicly recognized their department’s accomplishments.
Many of us are all too familiar with these tactics because they are necessary for our personal and professional survival. My male colleagues, however, had never encountered this kind of collaboration from each other: They considered it radical. I considered it leadership.
Be the rising tide that lifts all boats
I was on a mission: I wanted us all to win. That would have been my strategy regardless, but as the only woman at my level, it carried extra weight. I was concerned that if I failed, the guys would say, “See? That’s why women shouldn’t be on the executive team.” I also felt a responsibility to do well so that I could help other women in the company reach senior levels.
After only a few months in my new leadership role, our boss told me my peers considered me a partner, not a threat or an obstacle. Of course, I had never been a threat in the first place. The real obstacle was their insecurity about a woman in one of “their” positions. Even though they benefited from my success, their gut instinct had been to shut me out, call me names, and get in the way. Because my response was to find ways to help us all share the glory of our collective success, they came to see me as part of the team instead of an outsider.
I’m certainly not the only woman who has faced hostile behavior in the workplace. But I used this incident, and others like it, to think about how I could grow as a leader and flourish throughout my career.