Never apologize for being a woman in business.
In the last year and a half, I’ve gone from having an idea for a business to a full-time team of 46. We’ve iterated from an email form to a full platform. We’ve raised venture capital. We’ve partnered with some of the best companies in the country. And we’re now helping people from all over the world transform their lives through design. We have grown, changed, developed, laughed and cried, and it feels like it’s been much longer than 18 months.
Personally, even though it’s still early, this has been an incredible journey. As a former interior designer who never took a business course and didn’t know what Ruby on Rails was a year ago, it’s sometimes surreal when I hear words like “agile process” come out of my mouth.
Yet as soon as we closed our Series A funding round, I received requests to sit on panels and do interviews. I was flattered, but my company, Laurel & Wolf, was only six months old. Outside of some tactical advice on how to get an idea off the ground, I didn’t know what I had to contribute. Plus, many of these conversations were focused around what it’s like to be a female entrepreneur. Do we make decisions differently? Were VCs harder to pitch to? Did I find it difficult to recruit?
I’ve always jokingly answered that the only difference in being a female CEO is that it takes me longer to get ready in the morning. However, that’s not actually true.
Are You Apologizing Too Much?
While recapping potential hires with my new director of operations, she pointed out something I’d never noticed. She said, “Leura, I don’t know why you feel that you always have to apologize for being ‘tough’ and qualify it with the fact that you’re ‘fair.’ If you were a man, the fact that you hold high standards for your business and expect good work would never cross anyone’s mind to discuss.”
She’s 100 percent right. I’ve worried about how I come across to people. I’ve unintentionally apologized for qualities that would not only never be discussed or questioned if I were a man, if I would actually be celebrated. Great CEOs are strong leaders who have clear visions for their businesses. They move swiftly, decisively and expect the best from themselves and from those whom they work with.
While there’s still a lot of work that society needs to do for women leaders to escape both other people’s biases and our own, we can still make a difference. Personally, I’m going to stop apologizing for being “aggressive” or “tough” or “ambitious,” and am going to focus on what any good CEO should focus on— building a great business. I will continue to apologize for being wrong, rude, stubborn or selfish, but I won’t apologize for being a focused person who wants to aggressively grow a company. I won’t apologize for being ambitious and expecting the best. And I suggest other women do the same.
How to Embrace Your Executive Self
There are a few practices I’ve found helpful for stopping the apologies and embracing my executive self. For instance, stay positive. For yourself and for your team, positive reinforcement is important. Nobody should get a gold star for simply showing up, but great work deserves to be rewarded.
Along those same lines, have some fun. Never underestimate how people actually read and understand energy. Fun is also infectious, so let your team know how much you love your job. It will catch on like wildfire.
“Normal” is only a setting on a washing machine, so take time to celebrate the traits that make you unique as a leader. Remember, it’s okay to be a regular person. Just because you’re an executive doesn’t mean that you are bulletproof. But be honest with yourself and with your team.
Lastly, learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. There are going to be hard days and weeks, and you might feel as if you get things wrong half of the time. But I’ve found it critical to not dwell on the past.
I will keep moving forward and hope to continue this conversation so that, as a society, the discussion can shift from, “What is it like to be a female CEO?” to simply, “What is it like to be a CEO?”
Image credit: CC by Cory M. Grenier