Sophia. Leaders, Difficult People and Situations and Great Advice

posted June 3rd, 2009 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

I asked Sophia to think of the qualities she associated with the people she considered to be leaders and to describe their impact. She said her definition of a leader is someone that has a vision and not necessarily a vision for Canada or a vision for some higher purpose but just a clear sense of right and wrong which cannot be manipulated for personal or short term gain. She says a leader is someone who really stands for what they believe in and demonstrates it day in and day out. She gave the example of a former CEO whom she described as very transparent. She said he wanted to make money period and although he was (and is) a big philanthropist and gives tons of money away he never varied from wanting to make a lot of money; so you always knew where he was coming from and he wasn’t duplicitous. He didn’t say one thing to you and another thing to another person and the way to his heart was not to take him golfing or to socialize with him or anything like that. He was just focused on building his business, on doing the best thing for building his business; he knew where he wanted to take the firm. If he decided he was going to go into a specific business, he was going to go into the business and that’s where he was going to funnel money. He was going to hire people and let them do it. He treated everybody equally and managed egos. And she thinks someone that’s a leader has to manage egos really well and not allow fiefdoms to be created. And she says leaders simply have to be better than everybody and be fairer than everybody. She says her definition is a sort of fairy tale because a leader with all of these traits doesn’t really exist, however, I was left with the impression that she felt she had experienced real leadership during her career.

I asked Sophia to think about the people she does not consider to be leaders and describe the qualities she associated with them and what she saw as their impact on others. Sophia says in her mind when she talks about leaders and leadership she is not talking politics, she is talking about leadership in the sense of community or business. In the business sense, she thinks that a leader has to be decisive and understand what they’re doing and the implications of that and not play games or favourites. And she says that’s what she likes about “deal businesses.” She says things are very clear on the deal side and that’s why she has always been a “transaction junkie” and liked working at her firm. It wasn’t about the politics of the organization. She thinks good leaders cut through everything and really focus on what’s important to the business. She doesn’t think they have to go for a consensus. And she doesn’t think they have to be liked. She says she thinks they have to be almost like a parent in that it’s not about their kids liking them or considering them friends. It’s about gaining respect and thinking this is how to build this business or grow this child or whatever. She believes a leader has to be like that. And she says a leader has to be someone that can mobilize people and have people willing to do whatever it takes to really get something done, to motivate people to follow them and take up the challenge or take up the cause.

I asked Sophia to think of the people she had the greatest difficulty with and how she would characterize them and to describe their impact on her. She says her personality is such that the people she has the greatest difficulty with she simply ignores; she doesn’t set out to convert them or get them to like her, she just ignores them. And she says she has never been in an environment where she had to attempt to convert a person like this, although, she thinks if she was in a big organization and she didn’t get along with someone, she might eventually have to go and try to work things out with them and she would but she has not had to do it so she generally tends to ignore them or go around them so that they are unable to impact her. In essence, she minimizes their impact on her.

And she gave the example of sitting on a board and the Chair of the Board that she sat on lied to her in a meeting and she quit. She didn’t try to work through it and she isn’t sure that she could have in that particular case but she thinks this example illustrates her approach to the difficult people she encounters. However, she says when she had a client that was difficult, actually her most difficult client, she was able to build a friendship with them that exists today because there was no choice but to build a relationship with them. They were in an industry Sophia was covering and she had to get along with them. She says the client was profoundly difficult to get along with and because she tends to avoid confrontation when he would say jump one foot Sophia says she would jump two feet and eventually she grudgingly won his respect and she wonders if maybe she had it all along.

I asked Sophia about the best advice she had ever been given. And she said she just loves an expression she read in Fortune magazine from the woman who is the current President of Pepsi which she thinks about all the time which is “assume positive intent”. Always assume that the other person is not trying to cheat you, beat you, screw you, whatever, always assume positive intent. She says she thinks this whole concept is really, really powerful, and sometimes it’s really, really hard to do. For example, when she is having a “bad day”, she wonders whether having a big sign “assume positive intent” on her computer reminding her of this advice might alter her experience or change her day around. Again, she reiterates she thinks this is just the best advice, the best advice.

And I asked Sophia if she were giving advice to a young woman whether that is the advice she would give her or what advice stood out in her mind that she thought she would want to pass along. And she says she thought for a young person she would just say “nothing is forever.”

In her words: “You can have ten careers between now and when you retire or when you never retire. You can do millions of different things. You don’t have to feel that you have to go in and be an analyst and then an associate and then a Vice-President and then a Director and then a Managing Director. There’s this whole thing that if you don’t get slotted in at the right spot, at the right time, you’re just going to screw your career up and you’re never going to get there. I say just try different things and experiment and don’t get old before your time. I mean, really, you can do a lot of things at a lot of different times and you don’t have to do it conventionally. I didn’t start as an analyst and then become an associate and blah blah blah blah, which is the normal thing and neither did a lot of people I know that are very successful. They didn’t necessarily go and start working on their resumés in grade 12 or grade 9 or whatever. So just treat your career more experimentally or have a little bit more fun with it. I think that’s just the best thing because what I never, never really had, except when I was in the throes of a big deal, is passion about my job except when I had the adrenalin rush of a deal. And when I look at people that I think are really happy with what they do, they have passion and it’s not just to maximize their income. They are happy because they’re doing something they have a passion for and I think that’s really, really great; it keeps you young. So find that, experiment until you find it and just because your first job out of school is in technology or this or that, it doesn’t mean that’s what your career has got to be for the rest of your life.”

And I asked Sophia whether she would advise a young woman to establish alliances with other women and if so, whether she would suggest they do so at their own firm or elsewhere and she said: “Yes, yes. Absolutely, absolutely.” She said she considers herself to be incredibly lucky because she has had this wonderful group of women around her right from the beginning of her career in 1982 when she started to work. She says she has all of these women in her life, first the ones she worked with and now the ones she keeps in touch with and she thinks these relationships are vital. She says she would encourage women to do anything they could to maintain their relationships with other women and to foster relationships with other women both in their firms, outside their firms, in their industries, outside their industries, with women who stay home and become stay-at-home mothers, anywhere they could, wherever. She says: “Just make sure you have as many women you respect in your network as possible. I just think it’s required for your sanity. Women are so supportive.”

And she gave an example of a conversation with her partner (who she does not think is unusual) and she said “men don’t talk in shorthand. Women understand what you’re saying in ten words or less; men require 100 words or more. And she thinks it’s the same in the workplace. Women just get it, with the snap of your fingers it’s perfectly clear to them. She says she never worries her partner is losing it or is not brilliant, she simply reminds herself men do not think or talk in shorthand. This is one of the reasons, she finds having so many women in her life to be “just so great”.

Sophia thinks it’s really important that a woman have alliances and friendships with women outside of their firms because although she says she has been incredibly lucky with female mentors, “just so blessed” she doesn’t know whether that is always the case within an organization. As a result, she thinks it is important to always have women outside the organisation in your network of support for balance because it doesn’t always work that you are going to get great support from women in your own organization.

I asked Sophia whether she would advise a young woman to acquire technical or management skills and she responded technical skills. She thinks that you should always have some technical skills because it’s becoming an increasingly complex environment and “you have to know how things work or don’t work in terms of the details.” She gave a couple of examples to illustrate, in finance you have to know how the numbers work, in marketing you have to know what comprises the supply chain or whatever. And she says although she cannot be certain, she believes you must always have a foundation of technical skills. And she says in her opinion management for women is more about common sense and fairness than it is about any kind of management theory, although she admits this is a bias on her part. She would advise a young woman to begin with the “technical stuff” and assume the management skills will come.

What Strikes Me?

Always assume positive intent

Difficult people cannot have an impact if we simply ignore them

The power of focus

Remember nothing is forever

Experiment until you find work which you are passionate about; it will make you happy and keep you young

There are no rules and career paths need not be set in concrete

The importance of having a strong, deep, supportive network of women from inside and outside your organization and from all areas of your life

What Strikes You?

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