Anonymous Question

I’m a male manager with a female director report. She is the most senior female manager in the company and the only woman on the senior management team. While her resume and background are impressive, and she has a ton of potential, she has two habits that consistently undermine her contributions and credibility in meetings and with her peers.

There are two issues in my opinion:

1) Like many young women her age, she habitually uses “uptalk” and “vocal fry” when she speaks in meetings.

2) When she raises concerns or disagrees, she does it indirectly and tends to “defend the problem” rather than proposing and arguing for her proposed solution.

In combination, the two issues drown out the content of her contributions with what sounds like passive-aggressive whining, and sullen frustration. I’m usually pretty tolerant of generational quirks (I’m close to 20 years older than she is), but even for me her manner of speech is often a grating distraction, and it’s hard to watch her input get ignored and dismissed. The result is she gets excluded from important meetings she would benefit from being exposed to. I support her in meetings and actively solicit her input. I think she has the skills and talent to operate at the senior manager/VP level, but I have to admit, I wouldn’t advocate for a male manager with a similar communication issue, because I’m not confident she won’t undermine herself and the company in important meetings with customers or investors.

I need advice from female leaders (or men) who have managed similar sensitive communications challenges, either with a direct report, mentee, or personally. I’m concerned that trying to help will be taken as sexism when I’m attempting to advocate for her. Do I even try to coach the problem, or should I just grin and bear it while she continues to hold herself back? The company has its own tech-bro issues (working on it), but this one is tough to navigate as a man.


My Thoughts

First, take gender and age out of your assessment of the situation. We all benefit from leadership coaching. ALL of us. Every single leader needs a trusted feedback loop and advice from an independent observer to continually improve.

I desperately needed coaching when I was a new leader. I had terrible habits in my public speaking style (e.g., I rambled on too much). I needed to learn to be more concise during discussions when I was trying to defend my position and persuade others.

What I’m trying to say is that you believe she has great potential, so invest in her. Don’t let her sink or swim. But, you also don’t have to be the one who coaches her, either. Hire a public speaking coach for her, as my boss did for me. Let a professional help her.

Hire a leadership coach for her too, as my boss did for me. My coaches were invaluable. They helped me improve so much. Since they were outside experts — and not my manager — I felt more comfortable opening up and being vulnerable with them. It helped me grow.

BTW, her manner of speech should never be a reason she’s excluded from important meetings. Ever. Invest in this leader. Hire experts who can help her improve her public speaking and presentation styles. When someone has potential, nurture it!


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