The Gender of Leadership

I am very excited to be taking part in the “Women of HR” effort. When I told Trish McFarlane that I wanted to be a part of this project, I was both excited and perplexed. I knew I wanted to try to write in this venue.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I would have to say.

For this initial piece, I did what I always do when I am unsure of what direction a topic should take – I decided to write about myself and my own experience. Not as a woman, of course, but the experience of working in a field that has become increasingly female dominated over the course of my career. Recently, I was listening to HR Happy Hour and China Gorman shared that 72% of SHRM members are female.

The Gender of Leadership

Over the years, the gender of managers I have worked for has been almost equal, about 50% male and 50% female. The odd factor here is that I didn’t work for a woman for the first ten years of my career. This means that over the last 15 years, most of the people I reported to were women.

I haven’t experienced much difference in working for a woman versus working for a man.  At a high level, it has always been about the work and the results. Probably the most noticeable differences in styles would be in the area of communication. Generally, my female supervisors have been more accessible and open in their approach. There was also a discernible difference in the approach to investigating and reviewing harassment complaints of any sort. The men were all about getting it done, discipline, and legal mitigation. The women were all about looking at the personal aspects of the case – how the parties felt, identifying the root cause, and what was being done systemically to prevent recurrences as we moved forward. I think this is a better approach and may be a simple way of illustrating some of the gender differences of leadership. Your personal experiences and perspectives shape your leadership style, right?

My Personal Leadership Gender

Over the course of my own career, I have been told some version of this statement at least a half dozen times:

“You approach HR and the way you manage like a woman.

At first, I didn’t know how to take it.  Early in my career, it would have been a personal dig.  Today, I take it as a very high compliment. Many of the best HR professionals I have worked with have been women and I like to think that I learn something from everyone I work with.

Here is what that statement means to me today:

  • Not all problems are nails and you don’t have to bring a hammer to fix them.
  • Taking the time to listen and then consider is an essential part of effective leadership.
  • Try to look at all sides of the problem, including the underside, where the roots of the issue may still be buried, waiting to grow back, and deal with them.
  • Business is teamwork. Teams require cooperation and support more than they do cut-throat competitors.
  • Just because you are soft in demeanor doesn’t mean you are soft in getting results.

See you next month!

Photo credit iStock Photo

About the Author

Mike VanDervort

Mike VanDervort is a labor and employee relations strategist at a Fortune 100 company. He has two professional passions: human resources and social media and uses his extensive knowledge of both in the work he does every day. Mike speaks and write on how businesses can utilize social media tools to protect their brand and promote positive employee relations. He blogs at the Human Race Horses and is an active contributor to other forums.


Michael VanDervort

@Charee – Thank you for the very kind words. I am glad you found what i had to say valuable in some way. For me, growth has been a matter of time and experience, and working with some very fine colleagues.

Charee Klimek

Thanks so much for sharing your evolved point of view.

It’s inspiring to know that a person like yourself, someone highly respected in the industry, isn’t afraid to speak up and demonstrate that perspectives can be changed. Your influence, your voice and leadership style are beyond admirable.

My favorite suggestion was this: “Try to look at all sides of the problem, including the underside, where the roots of the issue may still be buried, waiting to grow back, and deal with them.”

Perhaps because it hit home for me. As I just finalized my first post on “moving on”, reading this actually makes me feel OK with pressing ‘publish’. For that I am grateful.

Thank you,

Michael VanDervort

@Chris – thanks, seems like the 5 points was the “high point” of the article. I enjoyed writing about them.

@Benjamin – the field of HR rocks, no matter which way you think!

I don’t throw like a girl, I just manage like a woman!

[…] In case you didn’t see it yet, I had the notable privilege of being the first male contributor to the new Women of HR community web site.  My post was about the differences of leadership styles between men and women.    It is also about my own personal experience with being told several times over my career that I manage like a woman.    If you want to see more, the article is titled “The Gender of Leadership“, and you can click here to read it! […]

Chris Frede

Thank you for sharing your perspective Mike. Approach is everything and I like you take pieces of both styles and create your own. I too really enjoy the five bullets you listed and will use them, Mike, you are a class act and I love reading your posts and look forward to more.

Michael VanDervort

I really appreciate the comments, and the notion that I had something meaningful and relevant to say in this space. I wanted to write here because I know there are serious issues still in play related to men and women in the workplace, and in HR. I find that writing and thinking about them helps me stretch, and ya’ll are just so much fun to hang around with.

Glad to be here. I’ll try to find something to say next month too!

Alicia Arenas (@AliciaSanera)

Mike, what I appreciate the most in your post is the last 5 bullets where you summarize what “managing like a woman” means to you. Thank you for helping break the negative stereotypes of female leadership!

Diane Prince Johnston

Love this post, Mike. I think as women in business we are shifting from the mentality of needing to “man up” to appreciating the benefits that our own qualities bring to management.

On “Taking the time to listen and then consider is an essential part of effective leadership,” the best thing a manager can hear is , “You are listening to me.”

You hit the pint hammer right on the head!

Jennifer V. Miller


We’re thrilled to have you as a contributor to the Women of HR! To expand on one of your interpretations: “Not all problems are nails and you don’t have to bring a hammer to fix them.”

Maybe you need a hammer, but it’s a ping hammer, not a sledgehammer. Sometimes a bit of finesse can take a person farther than brute force.

Mighty fine post, Mr. VanDervort.


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