Positive Self Talk — As successful as I was in the corporate world, I found myself working to keep negative thoughts from invading me. They slip in so easily, and before we know it, we’ve convinced ourselves that there is no way we can succeed. I’ve learned that we can’t stop negative thoughts from entering our minds; however, we can decide how much energy to give them. Never let negative thoughts take the power of your vision away.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gail Rudolph.
Gail Rudolph has spent years as an executive, maneuvering the power dynamics that happen in all interpersonal and business interactions. As the author of the book Power Up, Power Down: How to Reclaim Control and Make Every Situation a Win/Win, she’s the go-to expert on harnessing interpersonal power and creating win/win outcomes. As founder and CEO of Gail Rudolph Collaborative, Gail’s mission is to help women who feel overlooked and under-estimated tap into their power, so their unique expertise, perspectives, and opinions are heard and valued in every interaction.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in the Midwest as the youngest of four children. My brother, who was the oldest, was 18 years my senior.
As the “baby” of the family, I felt like I never had a voice….unless I threw a tantrum. Back when I was young, that was my power play to get attention, and it worked. As I grew up, I discovered that what worked as a child didn’t give me the right kind of attention or allow my voice to be heard. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
This is one of my earliest recollections and lessons around power.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I started my career in philanthropy, raising money for a variety of nonprofit organizations. One of my first positions was at a community foundation where I was the only full-time employee and my boss, who was gone more often than he was in the office, was part-time. I did most of the work while he took the majority of the credit.
I worked hard and completed goals that should’ve taken three years in a little over one year.
So, I thought it was the perfect time to ask for a raise.
To this day, I remember my boss shaking his head no and saying, “You get child support, don’t you?”
I was shocked. I didn’t know how to respond or what to do. I tried asking what child support or being a single mom had to do with my accomplishments for the foundation, but that didn’t change his view about giving me a raise. Every time I brought up the subject, I got the same response.
I discovered later that the foundation board approved a salary increase — for my boss. I felt utterly devalued, frustrated, and powerless.
Finally, I resigned and moved on. But I learned that I had been unknowingly giving my power away.
The trouble was, even in subsequent roles, I still didn’t have a grasp of how to claim my power and use it effectively.
As a young, ambitious woman in the workplace, I wasn’t always aware of power dynamics, and I didn’t always use power properly. Power wasn’t something I thought I had at my disposal, especially early on. Looking back, I now know I made many mistakes trying to navigate my role with power and figure out where I fell on the power continuum. But I began my journey to become aware of, and begin to understand, power.
Ultimately after years of struggling, I realized that the proper use of power can be learned. Once I mastered it myself, I set out to help others do the same. I wrote Power Up, Power Down to pay it forward and share what I learned with others. Ultimately after years of struggling, I realized that the proper use of power can be learned. Once I mastered it myself, I set out to help others do the same. I wrote Power Up, Power Down to pay it forward and share what I learned with others.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’d say that’s when I met Walter.
I’d just started a new job at a foundation and spent my first few weeks getting to know our high-level donors. I was warned that Walter, a retired State Trooper and ex-marine in his late eighties, had a terrible reputation for being difficult and rude.
Walter had commandeered many events, walking on stage and taking the microphone away from whoever was speaking. He would spout inappropriate rhetoric and would have to be removed from the stage.
He was such a challenge that my predecessor had refused to see or in any way engage with him. But his level of philanthropy was incredibly generous, so I insisted that my admin set up a meeting.
I had dealt with many demanding donors, but let me tell you, nothing prepared me for Walter. At our first meeting, I knocked on his door to pick him up for lunch. He answered, gave me a critical once-over, and stated matter-of-factly, “I don’t think I like you.”
During lunch, he made multiple inappropriate remarks about my appearance and even had the nerve to ask if I slept my way up the ladder to land my current position. I gently and firmly responded to each of his remarks, “Walter, that is not appropriate.” After each of his improper comments and my response, we would resume our meal.
When talk turned to the reason for his continually generous donations, he steadfastly avoided answering.
This went on for two years, and even though I still hadn’t been able to figure out what motivated his financial generosity, I had to admit I’d grown fond of Walter.
We had lunch every month, and I called him on holidays because I knew he had no one with which to share them.
One year on his birthday, I got up early to take Walter to breakfast.
As we sat across from one another over coffee and pancakes, I once again asked if he would share why giving to the healthcare system was so important to him.
To my surprise, he got misty-eyed, ducking his head to hide his sudden emotion. With a shaky voice, he shared his story.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got out of the service. When I got home, I began training to become a state trooper. My mom passed away while I was going through training, and I knew finding a woman who would marry me would be a task.” He grinned and said, “You know I can be difficult.” I smiled back in agreement.
Walter explained that on his very first shift as a State Trooper, he responded to the scene of a fatal car accident where he pulled a 5-year-old girl from the wreckage. He sat her on his knee, speaking to her in calm tones, knowing that, after that night, she would be an orphan.
The hospital was too far away for her parents to get the immediate care they needed to survive.
He reached into his wallet, pulled out a well-worn photograph, and pointed to a woman. “That’s her, that’s Kathy.” Walter and the young girl he’d comforted had kept in touch over the years, and today Kathy had a family of her own.
Then he said firmly, “That’s why I give. I want healthcare to be expanded throughout the county, so it’s close when people need it.”
The power of genuine curiosity helps us understand others. When we take time to move past the bluster, we often discover what lies beneath the surface.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Genuine curiosity is an important one, which is why I never gave up on Walter. I knew that deep down, he had a compelling reason for giving. As a result, his donations increased, and his relationship with leadership was greatly enhanced. He was no longer viewed as a problem but instead was respected and admired for his incredible contribution.
Harnessing my negative self-talk and not comparing myself to others have been powerful in pushing me forward to new positions and stretching me to pursue my dreams. Self-talk almost got in the way of writing my book. For years I believed that I couldn’t possibly have anything of value to share that would help others. However, when I stopped my negative self-talk, I realized that lessons in my unique journey could help guide others to grow and step into their power.
Being a continual learner has always prepared me for my next challenge. In addition to power dynamics, I’ve developed expertise in persuasion, diversity and inclusion, and leadership. The more I learn, the more confident I’ve become. Ironically, being new at something forces us to embrace our humility, and in doing so, we gain the courage to embrace lifelong learning.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
I believe this is essentially a result of how men and women are socialized in our culture. Men are taught to be big, loud, and take up space. They are allowed to express their power. On the other hand, women are taught to be quiet, make others feel at ease, and be selfless. Females don’t have the same cultural connection with possessing power.
As a result, when a woman speaks up or stands up for — or against — something, everyone is innately “uncomfortable:” This behavior is out of the realm of what we’ve been conditioned to accept, so there tends to be immediate pushback.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
In the initial stages of launching my company, one person felt threatened by my ideas and wanted to put me in my place.
He called me into his office, sat me down in a chair that was much lower than his, and proceeded to tell me that he didn’t see my passion around the topic of leadership.
I had put in a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money to start a leadership company, including achieving several certifications that would benefit my knowledge and expertise. But here was this person who had no degrees towering over me, telling me that I had no passion.
I can now look back and observe how he set the power stage to his advantage.
He invaded my personal space and made sure that he loomed over me. He also used an admonishing and dismissive tone, hoping to dissolve my self-confidence.
Today, I laugh about his feeble attempts to silence me. I can easily see that he was uncomfortable with my being a powerful woman with an entrepreneurial spirit and a take-charge attitude.
My best revenge continues to be developing a successful company centered around leadership principles.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
Using power properly doesn’t involve control, manipulation, intimidation, or domination of others. Real power comes from a place of stability and self-worth.
A powerful woman should remain in control of her words and actions when people are uneasy because power is, at its core, the expression and transfer of energy. There are two ways to do this based on the desired outcome.
She can “Power Up” by confidently taking up space with her belongings at a table, making eye contact, or simply convey relaxation by putting her arm over the back of the chair when seated. Being comfortable with her own power can diffuse situations where people feel uneasy.
Another effective and disarming approach is to “Power Down” by expressing empathy, giving others a chance to talk, and using a softer volume when speaking. “Powering Down” is an intentional way to hold power while making people feel more at ease.
By having command over her energy, a woman can express power to achieve trust and mutually beneficial outcomes.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
Women need to step into their power effectively by modeling it for future generations. We should be the women we needed as little girls.
To use power properly, women need to be able to read the situation and the players involved. That is key to determining whether Powering Up or Powering Down will be most productive.
We all have a default power stance: some people gravitate to Power Up behaviors and language while others are more inclined to employ Power Down maneuvers. Having access to both sides of the power coin allows a woman to intentionally utilize the most influential “Power Tools” based on the current interaction. This, in turn, amplifies her influence, forges an atmosphere of trust, and creates connection.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
I remember getting ready for my first big presentation in an industry unfamiliar to me. I was outwardly nervous, which is unusual for me. My nerves sprang from the impact I knew I could have on the group, but I couldn’t fluently speak their jargon. The “language gap” was shaking my confidence.
However, I had done my research and worked hard to understand this industry’s struggles and challenges. I wanted to provide them with the best my fledgling company had to offer, which I knew would help them open communication, cultivate trust, and collaborate more closely with their organization’s leaders.
So, although I had little firsthand experience in the industry itself, I’d sat in the C-Suite. I understood the dynamics that played out and the obstacles teams faced in communicating with executives.
As my self-talk shifted toward what I had to offer, my nervousness turned to excitement and confidence.
And that’s when someone walked up to me and said, “You know, it doesn’t really matter what you say to them. Wear a skirt and high heels, and you’ll be a hit.”
With this one statement, my knowledge and experience were reduced and devalued. My impact was seen as nothing more profound than what I was wearing.
How many men are subject to comments about what they wear, are asked if they’ve slept their way to the top, or are denied a raise because they are a single parent receiving child support?
Men are not typically subjected to these types of comments. They are unique to women in the workplace.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women are faced with the challenge of the Double Bind, meaning they can be seen as competent or likeable, but not both simultaneously. Men don’t face this issue. This also speaks to the cultural construct around power.
They also must contend with the Motherhood Penalty. If a woman chooses to start a family, their career is often derailed because employers don’t believe they can be productive, creative, and reliable contributors AND be a parent. When a woman has children, they earn on average 70 cents on the dollar compared to men who are fathers.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
Time and exhaustion — I felt like I was constantly juggling work and my children.
I’d often come home from work and immediately shift into parent mode, helping my kids with homework or taking them to an extracurricular activity. When they finally went to bed, I would spend a few more hours answering work emails or preparing presentations. Then, I’d grab a few hours of sleep and get up to start the whole process over again.
Because I was a female with children, I always had to out-produce my male counterparts to battle against the Motherhood Penalty. I felt that I didn’t have the option to set boundaries but instead had to always be available, especially to my boss.
I set and communicate appropriate boundaries now but wish I had done so back then. I could have enjoyed my life, had more time, and been much less mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. It makes me very proud when I see my daughter set her workplace boundaries.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
I will never forget a male colleague receiving a promotion I was certain I had “in the bag.” I was confused because I worked much harder, put in longer hours, and produced a higher quality of work. At that moment, I decided to take my power back through setting and holding clearly defined boundaries.
I used my newly promoted colleague as my guide. He never worked after he left the office. I, on the other hand, was always getting calls and handling things from home. I figured if he got the promotion by not working after business hours, then all the work I had done was wasted. So, I followed his example and set a new boundary of work staying at work. Because of that decision, my life was enriched, and I reduced my stress considerably.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
Beauty is power in our culture.
Studies show that attractive people earn more and are deemed more competent than those who are “less attractive.” But attractiveness doesn’t correlate into expertise or capability.
How we feel about ourselves builds confidence and contributes to how powerful we feel, so everything from the style or quality of our clothing to the colors we wear, to makeup, hairstyles and shoes can convey a sense of strength.
Fashion and makeup can be tools to boost our power from head to toe. But real confidence and power isn’t artifice. It’s innate. When we feel strong and beautiful inside, it’s undeniable. Even in jeans and a t-shirt with no makeup, we own our personal power.
How is this similar or different for men?
Women have a higher standard of beauty to adhere to than men. We have to manage (i.e. hide, remove, adjust) our weight, skin, wrinkles, and gray hair. We must squeeze into shapewear to make our bodies perfect. We put on make-up to hide our flaws. We tweeze, pluck, shave, and laser away hair we don’t want while applying serums, mousse, and gels to volumize and style the hair that is desirable.
Although there are attractiveness expectations for males, men don’t have the social pressure to conform to as many strict beauty rules as women.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each
1. Positive Self Talk
As successful as I was in the corporate world, I found myself working to keep negative thoughts from invading me. They slip in so easily, and before we know it, we’ve convinced ourselves that there is no way we can succeed. I’ve learned that we can’t stop negative thoughts from entering our minds; however, we can decide how much energy to give them. Never let negative thoughts take the power of your vision away.
2. Clearly Defined and Communicated Boundaries
I am a recovering people pleaser. I say recovering because if you default to wanting to please others, it’s crucial to know our boundaries and consciously choose to hold them. If I had clearly defined and held my boundaries, I could have avoided toxic situations in my professional and personal relationships.
3. Use the Proper “Power Tools”
There are two ways to step into power. Powering Up and Powering Down both use verbal and nonverbal communication and are different sides of the same coin. We have a choice in every situation whether we want to Power Up or Power Down. They are both equally effective but choosing the correct “Power Tool” for the situation opens your influence and advances relationships.
4. See Things as Opportunities Instead of Barriers
Every road leads to where we need to be. If we must take a detour, remember it’s there for a reason. We give our power away when we tell ourselves that something or someone can keep us from achieving our dream. Instead, we can harness our power by embracing everything along our path as a necessary part of preparing for the great things ahead. View obstacles as learning opportunities and move on with increased motivation.
5. Be Kind to Yourself, Laugh at And Learn From Your Mistakes
Society tells us mistakes and failures are unacceptable, but both are part of being human. Other people will see our mistakes, and that’s okay because they fall short, too. When we miss the mark, we need to take responsibility. We also must be gentle with ourselves by watching our self-talk. When we acknowledge failures and slip-ups as opportunities for growth, we set ourselves up for success.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Sheryl Sandberg is a female leader that I greatly admire. As an executive and philanthropist, she is working to make inroads for women and those who are marginalized to rise to leadership positions, which entails creating a cultural inclusivity shift both at home and in business. I have similar aspirations and having a conversation with her about making this happen would be an honor.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.