All right, readers. I know this is technically a blog about decorating in real life, but today I’m taking a break from my usual shopping, styling and renovation chatter to share some thoughts on something else: Life as a female creative.
Maybe it’s not such a leap. I have a feeling a lot of you reading this:
- are female;
- are creative;
- struggle (or would struggle) with fitting into a male-dominated or very corporate work environment.
So I don’t feel too bad about taking this side road. Anyway. Last week I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel hosted by Career Contessa, a fantastic career-development site that interviewed me a few years ago. It was a collaboration with Trunk Club, the personal-styling service that’s part of Nordstrom, and it was called “Women Who Mean Business.” The night got me thinking a lot about my own career journey—the successes, failures, and things that I’ve never quite gotten right. You can watch the full panel via this link, but I also decided to go back over the questions we were asked and try to answer them more fully on this blog.
Let’s go back to the very beginning. Can you tell us what your first “leadership” role was? Were you ready for it when the time came?
I’d probably give that honor to being editor of Boston Weddings magazine, then eventually moving over to be executive lifestyle editor at Boston magazine, where I ran the editorial side of the Best of Boston Awards in 2011. Leading the efforts of a team of writers and freelancers felt like a huge responsibility, not only because I was taking the reins of a huge franchise and budget for the magazine, but also because I knew that the results of what I was working on would reverberate throughout the community. For several years I had contributed and judged categories for Best of Boston, and people would tell me “getting that award legitimized my business,” and “the award put me on the map.” Leading it was a lot more pressure.
How would you describe your leadership style? Has it evolved over time?
I’m 100% mentor, 0% manager. I confess that I’ve struggled with corporate structure; I’m most comfortable in lean, entrepreneurial environments where everyone at every level gets their hands dirty and knows everyone else’s business. You lead by doing, by having ideas worth listening to, by being honest and accessible and by getting shit done. As you evolve and grow in a larger organization however, being an organizational leader is a totally different dynamic. It becomes very much about cross-functional relationship building, reporting on “wins,” and steering the ship. It’s about managing how people are spending their time, delivering performance reviews, et cetera. I deeply admire the leaders I work with who just own that role, who are tremendously persuasive, and who garner loyalty and inspire the people who work under them to do better and more. Personally, though, I’ve never gotten any more comfortable with those aspects of “leadership.” What I have become is a confidante for many younger women who have come to me saying “I feel out of place,” “How do I get from here to where I really want to be?” and “How can I be applied really well here?” I try to embrace that I’m an example of how success looks different on everyone. Not everyone has to climb the same ladder. There's also a rope swing.
What are your techniques for building successful teams and/or building trust within a team?
Look at someone you don’t trust. Watch everything they do. Then do the opposite.
Part of leading involves making missteps or mistakes—and having to take full responsibility for them. What were some early mistakes you made while learning your leadership style? How did they ultimately make you a stronger leader?
Trying to emulate others’ leadership and management styles. It felt fake, because it was fake. And when I was speaking in a voice that wasn’t my own, I didn’t know how to respond when anyone went off-script. Fundamentally, I didn’t understand the difference between leading, managing, and mentoring. Leading is about showing others the way—hacking with a machete through uncharted territory. Managing is about helping people to do what they’re there to do, and removing all of the roadblocks in their way. And mentoring is about helping them answer all the questions they have about where they are and where they’re meant to be.
Study after study finds there’s still a leadership gap between men and women, especially at the C-Suite level and in male-dominated fields. Have you experienced that firsthand? How have you pushed through?
My struggles were less about a leadership gap and more about the lanes men vs. women were expected to stay in. At many magazines, it was often the females who handled anything lifestyle-based, and it the men who were looked upon to do the “tough thinking”—the hard, investigative stories. The women who pushed through and emerged as thought leaders had to speak two, three times as loudly and firmly as the men in the room. It was supremely annoying, and I am so proud of the female journalists I’ve worked with who simply wouldn’t tolerate that marginalization.
Fortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of that in my current company—it’s a pretty egalitarian place, and for that I’m grateful. But there are trends across the broader industries. Many engineering teams are dominated by men; in lifestyle companies, buying, design, and copy teams are frequently dominated by women. The furniture industry can be an old boys’ club behind the scenes. But fortunately there are a lot of people working to change that. Change is slow, but it’s coming.
Do you feel there’s a difference between the way women lead and the way men do?
More women than men are plagued with self-doubt. I think a lot of men just fake it ‘till they make it and then pat themselves on the back when things go well.
With taking on a leadership—and in careers in general, really—there’s inevitably going to be some criticism. What techniques have you developed to not take those moments personally? And as a leader, what’s your best advice for giving people constructive criticism?
I’m the first to admit that I take everything personally. When you work in the lifestyle space, life is work and work is life, so it’s extremely tough to compartmentalize. A critique of your styling is a critique of your eye and your judgement. That doesn’t ever really go away.
As far as delivering criticism, I note first what IS working, then address the improvements that need to be made. Basically framing it up as, “You’ve nailed it here. Let’s dig in and figure out how to get everything else up to that same level.”
Women notoriously have a hard time saying “no” especially in professional situations. Do any of you have particular techniques for doing just that?
I deal with this more in my personal life than my professional life. I get asked to participate in a lot of extracurricular things—for my neighborhood, for friends, for charities, for school. And it’s hard because I want to give to all of them. As women we have this need to be appreciated, and someone asks us to do something, we’re grateful to be recognized for our abilities. But then the task becomes a burden. But here’s a little secret: You don’t actually have to do the thing to get participation points. Sometimes it’s okay to be a connector instead of a doer. When I can’t take something on, I’m learning to respond first with gratitude: “Wow—I love this idea. What an opportunity.” But if it’s not for me, I deflect and connect: “You know who would be amazing at this? Jane Smith. I’ll get you two in touch.” I learned this technique from an incredibly busy and involved woman I know. She’s a magician—people know her as someone who gets stuff done, but she’s actually really good at getting other people to get stuff done.
We have to ask: what’s your power outfit? What makes you feel confident?
A leather jacket and/or pointy heels. They give every outfit a little edge.
And that's that. Tell me: Do you disagree with any of the above? Is there one thing you wish someone had told you about creative leadership? Do share in the comments below or over on Instagram @donnagarlough.