By Anna Moore
Theresa May’s disastrous election gamble is just one high-profile example of a woman giving everything to reach the top, only to embark on a self-sabotaging course once she gets there. Anna Moore reports.
When Theresa May called the snap election in April, her party a comfortable 20 points ahead in the polls, few imagined how far – and how fast – she would fall. Only afterwards, in the immediate aftermath of the shock hung parliament result, did we begin to learn the truth about her leadership style. For a seasoned politician (the longest serving Home Secretary in more than 50 years), her mistakes sound startlingly elementary.
May swept into Number 10 after last year’s referendum with a cabinet of experienced ministers eager to support her in her new role. But instead of collaborating freely with them, she relied instead on a tight clique of trusted, unelected advisers: her former joint chiefs of staff Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, whom she brought with her to Downing Street from her previous position at the Home Office. These two acted as the PM’s gatekeepers: they took control of her diary, told ministers what to do and kept them at arm’s length. They reportedly could be ‘unacceptably aggressive’, sending cabinet ministers ‘rude’ texts.
Ignoring the wealth of wisdom and experience at her disposal in Whitehall, May appears to have chosen not to consult beyond them. The resulting atmosphere has been described by insiders as ‘toxic’ and May’s working style ‘closed, controlling, untrusting’.
Although a leader’s role is to unite everyone around a common vision, few knew what May’s ‘vision’ was, partly because of this excessive secrecy – even her own cabinet ministers were only given sight of the full election manifesto just 20 minutes ahead of the media.
And as the campaign got underway, May seemed elusive and unknowable to the public, too. She avoided TV debates and hid from view, scampering to tiny gatherings of party faithfuls to repeat robotic mantras (‘strong and stable’, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’) before jumping back on her battle bus. With hindsight, the collapse of her majority seems less a shock result, more a disaster-in-waiting.
Sadly, May is by no means the first highly intelligent and capable woman who has doggedly worked her way to the top – in business or public life – only to come crashing down in the blink of an eye.
High-flyer and 2014 Veuve Clicquot Business Woman award-winner Harriet Green transformed the fortunes of ailing travel company Thomas Cook after arriving as CEO in 2012.
Two years later, she was reportedly forced out amid rumours of an atmosphere of anxiety in the office; that Green had ‘no respect for anybody’ and staff lived ‘in fear of her public humiliations’, according to former colleagues.
In the US, Marissa Mayer – the IT executive who made her name at Google before becoming CEO of Yahoo – is another example. She resigned earlier this year after Verizon completed its acquisition of the tech company, having failed to turn its fortunes around. During her tenure, an employee survey found that workplace morale had fallen by double figures and the company’s senior leadership were criticised for ‘not listening’ and ‘not understanding’.
In the media world, Jill Abramson became the first woman to serve as executive editor of The New York Times – and, in May 2014, the first to be fired. Its publisher blamed ‘arbitrary decision making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues’. On the same day, editor of the French daily newspaper Le Monde Natalie Nougayrède resigned after just 14 months on the job, with staff complaining about her ‘Putinesque tendencies’. Ouch.
While no one doubts the ability of these women to go on to achieve great success again, statistics bear out the perception that female leaders are more vulnerable than men to being abruptly fired. Research by global strategy consultants Strategy& that looked at CEO turnover in the world’s 2,500 largest public companies over a decade found that women were forced out of their positions more than a third of the time – for men, it was closer to a quarter. And given how hard these women must have worked to defy the odds and reach the top (in 2015 women represented only three per cent of new CEOs), that’s a crushing figure.
Why do many women come so far only to falter? Career and leadership coach Sue Clarke (inthehotseat.co.uk) has seen it many times. One factor, she says, is ‘impostor syndrome’, which is common in high-achieving women: the fear that you don’t deserve your success, it was down to luck and timing, and you may be ‘found out’ at any moment. (It’s certainly true that May became leader of the Conservative party largely because she was the only option left after Andrea Leadsom stood down and Michael Gove and Boris Johnson committed hara-kiri.)
‘Stepping into the top role if you’re harbouring any doubts can be overwhelming,’ says Clarke. ‘What can happen is a kind of stage fright. You forget all the experience and skills that got you there in the first place and go to pieces.’
This moment of taking the reins is when leaders are most vulnerable, says Mike Myatt, leadership adviser and author of Hacking Leadership. ‘People who have spent years developing skills, learning and growing as they inch their way to the top, finally get there and think, “I’ve arrived!” In the worst cases, it then becomes about holding on to power and proving you know everything, showing everyone that you have the answers. The best leaders never stop listening and engaging – they are lifelong learners. They constantly want to grow.’
But if you feel unsteady and – at root – undeserving, you’re liable to make classic May mistakes. ‘You fall back on what you know and think, “I’ll rely on what got me here in the first place because that must have worked,”’ says Clarke. ‘So you bring your old people with you, you stick to what you know and develop a closed style of working.’
This bunker mentality is lethal – especially as a new role at the top takes you further from the coalface than you’ve ever been before. ‘Experienced leaders, successful leaders, will seek out dissenting opinions,’ says Myatt. ‘They know they need to spread beyond their comfort zone otherwise there will be gaps and blind spots.’
Instead of treating staff like a ‘threat’ to be kept in line, it’s crucial to view them as your best asset, to delegate responsibilities and nurture leaders all the way to the outer edges of your company. ‘If you try to do everything at the top, you get discontent and bottlenecks,’ says Myatt. (In fact, May has been described as a ‘control freak’, while Yahoo’s Mayer was accused of being a micromanager who insisted on personally reviewing the terms of contracts ‘line by line’, which was described by staff as a ‘colossal waste of time’.) It’s a vicious cycle. The more you control, the less you delegate, the greater your workload, the more exhausted and the less efficient you become.
‘I’ve seen this happen,’ says Clarke. ‘When you step up into a CEO role, you are very quickly overwhelmed with work. The things you did in the past to help you cope – eating well, sleeping enough, maybe going to the gym – can very quickly fly out of the window while you work 24/7.’ All this piles on pressure, raises stress, shortens your fuse, clouds judgment and impacts performance. (Green famously worked out at 5.30am and claimed she needed no more than four hours’ sleep; her staff might think differently.)
So what can female leaders do to avoid these pitfalls? There is little doubt that they are under enormous pressure, scrutinised in a way men aren’t. May’s £995 leather trousers, picked out by Hill and worn in a newspaper photo shoot, made headlines and caused a row at the heart of government.
More importantly, they’re surrounded by men, appointed by men and, as one of the authors of the Strategy& study pointed out, ‘We tend to like those that are most like us.’ Women are more likely to come in as ‘outsiders’, while men have more opportunity to work their way up within a company. And female CEOs often fill roles where there are few willing candidates; this is known as the ‘glass cliff’, where leaders are set up to fail.
On top of all this, they have to perform better than men. US research, which drew on a decade of data, found that if a company’s value rises by one per cent, male executives’ ‘compensation’ (through bonuses and stock options) rises by 44 per cent; the female equivalent is 13 per cent. However, if a company’s value drops by one per cent, a female executive’s compensation falls by 63 per cent – a male’s by just 33 per cent. Given these pressures and imbalances, it’s hardly surprising that performance suffers and sometimes crumbles.
So how can you guard against it? When it comes to impostor syndrome, research suggests that the key to overcoming it is to recognise it, put a name to it and voice it to a neutral party, such as a mentor or a career coach. Then argue with it; face it down. Sharron Lowe, success coach and author of bestseller The Mind Makeover: The Answers to Becoming the Best You Yet, has coached numerous executives of global companies and is adamant that you can think your way into failure – or success
‘The most important opinion you hold is the one you have of yourself,’ she says. ‘If you go to work telling yourself you’re not good enough, those thoughts become your feelings; your feelings inform what you do and those actions will create your outcomes.’
Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, said her greatest obstacle has been the voice in her head that she calls her ‘obnoxious roommate’.
‘We all have an inner voice that plays all day,’ says Lowe. ‘Get to know yours. You can choose which radio station you tune it to. Is it your friend that supports and nurtures you? Or is it your enemy, telling you you’re not good enough, that you’ve made a mistake and everything’s a disaster?
‘Draw on your successes and file away only the good stuff,’ advises Lowe. Ask yourself when you performed best, when you excelled and how it made you feel. Write it down. Focus on the positive feedback you’ve had. Keep copies of great appraisals, client comments and customer reviews on the way up. Clarke suggests taking yourself back to a time when your confidence was high. ‘At the time you applied for a leadership role, you must have had a degree of confidence, so remind yourself why you believed you could do it and why you were recruited,’ she says. ‘Try to get back to the thoughts and emotions at the moment you got the job.’
Confidence is crucial in a leader, says Myatt – and with that, the rest can follow. ‘With true confidence comes the ability to listen to others, admit mistakes and shore up weaknesses that we all have.’ A confident leader will consult widely and harness all the talent available. ‘I worked with a new CEO recently who did a lot of walking around,’ says Clarke. ‘Every week she spent a couple of hours walking around the whole building, learning, listening and making herself accessible. However you do it – whether it’s regular briefings or a suggestions box – you need to engage with staff and encourage them to talk to you.’
‘Only when you’ve spent some time getting to know the people and understand the environment can you diagnose the problems,’ says Myatt. ‘There’s no such thing as a perfect leader. Everyone knows you’re human and people want to see that.’
Both May and Hillary Clinton appeared stiff, wooden and uncomfortable on the campaign trail, with one critic describing Clinton as ‘unrelaxed’, whereas Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump – whether you liked them or not – were more relaxed and looked like they were being themselves.
‘People will get behind someone who is comfortable in their own skin and doesn’t hide behind a façade,’ Myatt continues. ‘In order to trust you, they need to feel that they know who you are. And again, to be yourself comes down to confidence. It all starts from there.’
The rules of successful leadership
– Consult widely, engage all voices and seek out dissenting opinion.
– Delegate and allow everyone to contribute.
– Spend time getting to know the landscape before setting the agenda or making major changes.
– Notice what’s working well – don’t focus only on ‘change’ and ‘solutions’.
– Keep listening and learning, and be willing to ‘unlearn’ if old methods no longer work.
– Be aware of your inner voice. Make sure it’s the voice of a friend, shoring you up and supporting you.
– Voice self-doubts to a neutral party: an executive coach or a mentor, someone who can cheerlead and support without agenda.
– Surround yourself with ‘yes’ people or a tight inner circle.
– Be secretive and inaccessible. To align a team around a common vision, they need to be fully involved and understand the agenda.
– Think you need to know it all. As CEO you won’t need to know and do everything; you need a team who can.
– Confuse confidence with bombast. Some great leaders are introverts, others are extroverts. What matters is that they are authentic.
– Be afraid to admit mistakes or say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.’
– Allow all your coping mechanisms and systems to fall away. If you can no longer manage an hour in the gym, can you switch to short bursts of interval training, for example? A personal trainer who comes to your door or a nutritionist who ensures your meal is prepared when you get home? Invest your higher income in some self-care to keep you grounded and able to perform at your best.