A Personal Touch

The Female Dynamic

What exactly is a female work style? A 1994 NFWBO study called "Styles of Success" revealed differences in how male and female business owners approach work. It reported that while men think in terms of facts and hierarchy, women base working relationships on friendships and values, and search for common threads with co-workers and clients. Female conversations tend to be less direct and take longer (Duff notes that job reviews between women take twice as long as those between men). For women, workplace communication is more than just a mechanical exchange over the details of a project.

"Women work on the 'dead-even rule,' asking, 'How much are we alike?' Men are more accepting of hierarchy," Duff says. "For women, work often becomes a question of 'Do you like my work?' vs. 'Do you like me?' Many women still get this confused." Duff adds that her research has revealed one-third of women maintain clear friendship/work separations with their co-workers, another one-third understand the balance but struggle with it, and the other one-third can't make the distinction.

For some female business owners, it can be tempting to forge close friendships with employees. Wendy Clore, 29, founder and president of Hummingbird Design and Advertising, a 5-year-old advertising and public relations company in Raleigh, North Carolina, has become friends outside of work with her three employees. Clore's employees are all female, in their 20s and 30s, and include a public relations/marketing person, a designer and a production manager. When she started the company, Clore didn't imagine that her staff would be all female. "I didn't plan this; it just kind of happened," Clore says, adding that Hummingbird's design style has led to more women applying. The firm has had success, winning two medals this year for graphic design from Summit Creative Awards, a program that recognizes exceptional work by ad agencies, video production companies, multimedia firms and other creative groups.

Clore sees open communication as the biggest challenge in working with other women, and she struggles with how to address business challenges without disturbing friendships that have developed. She chooses her words carefully. "With my staff, I have to stop before I say something and think, 'How can I discuss this so it doesn't get taken personally?' " she says. She occasionally hears about staff problems secondhand, like the time she ran a classified ad that started gossip about where the company was headed and where the staff fit into it. And sometimes issues that seem resolved reappear. "Truthfully, I don't know how to stop things from resurfacing [months after the fact]," Clore says.

Clore's dilemma is not uncommon. Finding the balance between friend and boss can be tricky for many female CEOs who find themselves managing other women. Duff suggests that female leaders strive to keep the focus on work and limit social gatherings outside the office. Greer says she's learned from past experience to set clear boundaries between being the boss and forging friendships with female employees. She will occasionally meet them for lunch, but except for an annual Christmas party at her house, she emphasizes increasing the com-pany's sales from the $9 million it had in 1999 and being included again on Deloitte and Touche's North Carolina Fast 50 list of the fastest-growing companies in her state. She turned down a recent offer from employees to join them for kick-boxing lessons ("I'd cramp their style," she jokes) but keeps her door open for work-related problems. "Any director needs to keep a distance from employees, but not be too aloof," she says. "I keep a line there, but I try not to make it an obvious line."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the November 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: A Personal Touch.

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