CEO Archetypes: #7 Joan of Arc

If you are a woman CEO, no matter how good or bad you are, at some point they are going to burn you at the stake.

by Nancy Householder Hauge on February 24th, 2014

I am not sure how to say this any other way. . .

If you are a woman CEO, no matter how good or bad you are, no matter which of the previous 6 CEO Archetypes you fall into, at some point they are going to burn you at the stake.

And yet, there are these very courageous women who jump into the leadership spot knowing full well that incineration is a certainty.

When Paddy Chayefsky’s prediction that countries would be replaced by companies came true, God apparently stopped whispering “Save France” and began suggesting that woman save: Pepsi, Xerox, Yahoo, Western Union, Kraft and about 45 other Fortune 500 enterprises. God must have a pretty diversified portfolio.

Now, I am not a shrill feminist, but I know that all of these CEO’s will eventually become martyrs.

The Joan of Arc jumps in when reason says stay out of the water. The Joan is compelled to lead. I don’t know these women personally, but I do know their experience. Actually, I worked at Sun at the same time as Carol, but I was never in her organization, so I observed her more than worked with her. And Carly and I used to get our mani-pedi’s done at the same time at La Belle in Palo Alto, so we sat next to each other frequently and chatted a bit (when she wasn’t on conference calls), but I cannot say I know her.

Joan of Arc illustration on vintage Harper's magazine cover.

Creative Commons image by the Boston Public Library

What I do know is that just like the virgin-warrior, these girls are held to a different standard than their male counterparts. They will be excoriated for minor flaws in judgment or peccadilloes or even potty-mouths…while their male peers enjoy biology-based immunity from the same level of scrutiny.

The Virgin Warrior Standard

C’mon, none of the women leading the firms I mentioned above would survive having an inappropriate relationship with a vendor, hide it by lying on expense reports, subject the enterprise to an harassment suit, be allowed to resign with a multi-million-dollar package, negotiate a settlement with the plaintiff without notifying the BOD, be defended by pundits and other CEO’s and then land a new C-level job in less than 60 days at a competitor. No, it takes balls to have a run like that and still have anyone of merit defend you.

When it was reported that, upon learning a senior engineer was leaving Microsoft for Google, by one account Steve Ballmer threw a chair and said: “Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy. I’m going to fucking bury that guy, I have done it before, and I will do it again. I’m going to fucking kill Google.”

…most of the world yawned a bit and took a Boy-that-Steve-is-one-passionate-guy stance.

But when Carol Bartz told Michael Arrington to “fuck off” during an interview in which Arrington had been blatantly disrespectful, she was quickly called a variety of crude names and labeled unprofessional and unladylike.

Excuse Me? Did You Say, Unladylike?

I cannot find a single instance of Ballmer being called “ungentlemanly” for his outburst. Nor do I find the plethora of descriptive obscenities for male executives that are commonly used to describe women in those roles. OK, so Ballmer called Schmidt an obscene name…but think about it…in a rage, the worst thing Steve could think to call Eric was a vulgar term for a woman’s genitalia. Because really, the worst thing you could call a man… is a woman.

“Joans” are rare; statistics tell us that the majority of women leave the corporate executive ranks early with visions of starting their own companies or joining the consulting world. The odds against them are monumental. Most women just give up or wear down and succumb to the voice in their head that tells them the fight is too daunting. So these driven few who gut it out and excel in the big companies really are unique. They hear a different voice in their heads telling them to ignore the bullshit and keep moving forward.

Sometimes a woman’s family pulls her from the competition. And it is not always the needs of school age children that make a woman reconsider her corporate aspirations.

My Life as a Woman Was Different in the Workplace Than a Man’s

In 1992 my friend Kevin Melia came to my house for dinner. Kevin was the CFO at Sun Microsystems. We had worked closely together when he ran World Wide Operations at Sun. It was summertime, his family was on the east coast for a few weeks, so my husband, Kem and I invited Kevin to share some grilled pork-chops and a pleasant evening.

We were having a great time when Kevin turned to Kem and said; “I haven’t seen you for a long time, Kem. You were not at the Christmas party or the last few Sun gatherings, where have you been keeping yourself?”

And my shy, sensitive husband looked Kevin right in the eye and replied, “Kevin, you pay Nancy a lot of money to deal with Sun’s sexism, but you could not pay me enough to watch it ever again, so I will not be attending another Sun function.” Kevin actually choked on his pork chop. It was a very tense moment with two men who like each other, who I love and who I know both love me.

I was initially perturbed by my husband’s candor that evening. I really thought he just did not get it. My life as a woman was different in the workplace than a man’s. I knew that and I accepted it. Why couldn’t he accept it? I felt he was applying a man’s criteria to my experience and not understanding the unique dance I had to do to remain influential and well liked as a women in corporate America.

I discussed this with my good friend, Ron Lloyd, at Sun the next week and he asked, “What do you do that is different from what I do?” And like the fool that I am, I answered him. “Well,” I said, “If I have an idea I really want heard or implemented, I usually attribute it to a male colleague to give it gravitas.” “Why would you do that?” Ron asked. “Because otherwise it will not get attention.” I explained. I went on to tell him that in a one-on-one situation, if I had an idea or solution I would invoke a colleague who was not in the room. So I might say to Kevin Melia, “Jim Bean and I were talking and I think Jim said, ‘fill in my idea here.'” Or if I have something I think is important in a staff meeting, I try to get the guy sitting next to me to pick up my idea so it will get attention.

Ron did not believe me. Sweet man that he is, he thought I had a lot of influence and did not buy that I sacrificed credit for ideas just to get things done. So, we agreed to an experiment. At the next meeting of the senior management of the World Wide Operations team, he was going to pay attention to the responses I got when I offered ideas and then he would offer the exact same idea within a couple of minutes.

You know what happened. On at least three occasions in the first hour of the WWOPS meeting I suggested something or offered an opinion and no one responded at all. Within a minute or two of my offering being ignored, Ron would suggest the same thing, literally quoting me word-for-word and, what do you know, the group would engage, consider and discuss Ron’s offering. The first time Ron raised an eyebrow at me in surprise, the second time he seemed amused, but the third time it happened he looked at me with such pity that I realized I had made an enormous blunder by ever revealing the behavior.

I had thought I was clever and resourceful, doing what was needed to get things done and not be too demanding of my male colleagues, by making them actually hear me.

My husband and teenage son, on the other hand, were always appalled by how I had to work and how I was treated as a woman in that world.

The “Corporate Mistress”

Don’t misunderstand, I never had any illusions of being a CEO, but my secret thoughts of one day moving beyond a VP of HR title (a suitable job for a woman) ended when Ron understood how I survived. I realized that my husband and son were right to be appalled. So, while I might have been up to the fight, the men in my family could never bear to witness it. Kem and Andy had long referred to my role, as the “corporate mistress,” meaning none of the men in my career would ever acknowledge my contributions in public. I had found that amusing. But now, as I looked at my corporate life through their and Ron’s eyes, I was humiliated and mortified by what I had tolerated.

My family could never have withstood any greater ambitions than those I have accomplished. Even with those early subservient behaviors, I have been called my share of unflattering names during my career. But Kem and our son, Andy would never have survived anyone calling me the names the Joans get called everyday.

I abandoned those give-the-credit-to-someone-else-behaviors long ago. I learned how to be heard and did not have to become shrill or screeching. Actually, I learned to slow down, speak more quietly and try to be the last to speak on any topic. Do I always get credit? Nope. But as a consultant, I now bill for the hours I am in the background.

Every woman ever burned at the stake was first ignored and then called a name: witch, heretic, bitch, etc. etc. Every time someone hurls an epithet at a Joan they are laying pavement on her walk to the pyre.

So, I root for the Joans. I root for those women who have both the talent and the stamina to contend not only with the competition, but also with the unrelenting misogyny of our America culture as it relates to women in business.

I admire their grit, their gonads and their grace.

And I mourn whenever one goes up in smoke.

Note: This piece is republished from Consulting Adult, originally printed under the same title here under the “Steal this Blog” license.