I’ve been writing about how we, as male executives, can lead in a way so that women at work find us worthy of their trust. To sustain our success as such an ally, we need to bring a measure of emotional intelligence to our own efforts, and to the women with whom we work.
Approach ally development with self-awareness, respect and candor.
Prepare carefully for growing your ally relationships. Think through the things you’re looking for in the relationship (retaining her on your team, sponsoring her for bigger jobs, reverse mentoring from her, solving a business or employee problem together, cultural knowledge, answers to specific questions, the chance to listen and learn, input on a decision, etc.). Consider how you feel about and will handle any difference in position power between you. Thoughtfully plan times and places for the conversations. Such disciplined intention helps to avoid circumstances that may damage the relationship or your career – in the White Men’s Leadership Study, we found that relational safety is a top concern among white male leaders, when differences like gender and race are in view.
The interplay between respect and candor is vital. Respect can be defined as “honoring and esteeming a person’s character and contribution”. Candor may be seen as “saying what needs to be said in a way other people can hear it from you.” Plan to operate with an authentic mix of honor and directness. This combination of care and honesty is one dynamic that makes ally relationships so high-performing.
Find the right ways to care for yourself and for the women you partner with along the way.
Listen to one another’s responses, and watch one another’s behavior. Ask yourself: “Are my words and actions having the impact I intend?” Be patient in building ally relationships – it is often an adventure, non-linear and unpredictable. Cut yourself some slack as you learn how to encourage women and men to collaborate. Accept that there are mutual risks in having allies and being an ally. Trust the intuition that you may have about how the relationship is evolving.
If you are straight, and she is, too, then I heartily encourage you get clear about and manage any attraction you may have towards her. This includes acting with honor if she expresses attraction to you. When heterosexual men and women work together and win together, emotional boundaries can be reached and breached. I’m not arguing against falling in love. But if you hold a position senior to a woman, you are responsible for behaving yourself, to protect both of you and the company. Simply put, ally relationships are collegial, not romantic. Step up into personal responsibility, and don’t hook up. Make sure you lead smart from the heart.
If the woman you seek to serve as an ally is not demonstrating to you that she’s currently up for that sort of support, then don’t persevere in the attempt. I’ve observed women who, when they find out that some men actually want to support mutual success, will try to leverage that support as a competitive advantage. It's fair to say that not all women consistently seek to collaborate or reciprocate with men.
A final recommendation: skills like forgiveness and letting go are often wise choices for self-care.
Ally relationships are powerful. So commit to the long run, building the emotional knowledge and skill it takes to lead and learn as an ally with women at work.