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A Personal Touch

Make the most of your woman-to-woman, employee-to-employee relationships, and you'll make the most of your employees.
November 1, 2000
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/33730

For Debbie Greer, CEO of employee placement firm Greer Group Inc., moving into a new Raleigh, North Carolina, headquarters a little more than one year ago meant transforming the office walls from gray to a peachy pink. "The color was too dark," says Greer, 43. "We lightened it up a bit." Today, floral paintings, polished hardwood floors and elegant furniture decorate the space where Greer and her 25 employees-24 of them female-work.

In growing numbers, companies like Greer's are also transforming the way business is done. According to 1999 figures from the National Foundation for Women Business Owners (NFWBO), there are 9.1 million woman-owned businesses in the United States employing more than 27.5 million people and adding $3.6 trillion in sales to our economy. In fact, the fastest-growing industries for female business owners are traditionally male-dominated ones, such as construction and manufacturing. "Women are leading in their own style and creating their own business cultures," says NFWBO executive director Sharon Hadary.

But do challenges arise when women work together? How can a female entrepreneur in charge of a female staff maximize its potential? Carolyn Duff, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based trainer and consultant, as well as the author of Learning From Other Women: How to Benefit from the Knowledge, Wisdom and Experience of Female Mentors (AMACOM), says, "A different dynamic exists in a female environment, and we as women need to talk about our work style."

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."

The Tall Poppy Syndrome

Are you confident your female staff members are maximizing their true potential? During presentations to women's groups, Duff has asked women to raise their hands if they've ever passed on a promotion or business opportunity because they felt it would disturb the "dead-even rule" with female co-workers. Usually about half raise their hands. "For many women, openly competing at work is still difficult. Women need to play a bigger part in encouraging each other to succeed in business," Duff says.

An August 1999 Gallup Organization poll of 641 male and female employees indicated that some women still struggle with the idea of female leadership. Participants were asked if they would rather work for a man or for a woman. Of the female employees surveyed, 42 percent indicated they would rather work for a man, 22 percent would rather work for a woman and 35 percent didn't prefer one over the other (1 percent didn't have any opinion).

Amy Zimmerman, 41, refers to the phenomenon of power and success off-putting other women as "tall poppy syndrome." Zimmerman is CEO of Amy Zimmerman and Associates Inc., a placement firm in Manhattan Beach, California, that employs 12 women and two men. With $2.1 million in 1999 sales, the company was selected by the LA Business Journal as one of Los Angeles County's top 100 woman-owned businesses in 1999. Zimmerman, who defines her style as aggressive, thinks women are multi-faceted and more detail-oriented than men, making a female environment more challenging to navigate. "It's actually harder being a female boss, and female employees aren't as easy to read," she says.

Working with clients presents other challenges. Zimmerman looked at her own staff recently-where five women and two men work in commission-only sales jobs-and found that calls made by her male salespeople were returned sooner. "Our guys got more returned calls. Out of 25 calls, the men got 10 returns on average, and the women got 2 calls returned," Zimmerman says. "Surveys also show that when it comes down to it, clients still would rather deal with men. People automatically assume a higher level of credibility." You'd never see it in the numbers, though: One of her female sales reps leads the team with $260,000 in sales, double the sales of the next nearest salesperson, also a woman.

Clore, on the other hand, doesn't see any credibility issues in her business, and 80 percent of her clients are male-owned engineering, architectural, restaurant and auto shop businesses. To her, being successful is about having confidence in the services you provide. Her biggest challenge with clients? "Sometimes we spend more time on them than we probably should," she says. "We end up sort of nurturing them along."

Making It Work

If you have a largely female staff, the most important things are consistently stressing an open-door policy, encouraging employees to be direct, and openly discussing competition. Zimmerman's philosophy is to get it out, discuss it, fix it and move on-a process she calls "fair fighting." She spends 20 minutes every week in one-on-one discussion with each employee. "They each get my undivided attention," she says. And she has seen female employees struggle with hitting problems head-on. "I had one woman quit and tell me that she didn't like directly addressing problems. I asked her, 'Well, how do you get anything done?'" she says.

Maximizing the potential of your female staff comes down to recognizing the unique dynamic of a female environment. "For female working relationships to thrive, we need to respect some distance [with each other]," Duff says. As a female business owner, you don't need to change your style to fit an all-female environment, and you don't need to bury any instincts. In other words, don't stop being yourself. But you do need to make sure that your staff consistently understands your approach to work, your boundaries on interaction and your reasons behind them. "The female CEO needs to acknowledge her style and tell employees what works for her," Duff says. The common thread that binds your staff should be a shared, mutual commitment to their projects. If you can achieve that, you might find women's work has never been easier.