Smart, Accomplished, Professional… But “What's With the Hugs?”

I did a media interview a few months back, and the reporter asked me a question that’s had me scratching my head ever since. She wanted to know how a driven businesswoman focused on business results can always be seen giving people hugs. She wanted to know how I rationalize that paradox.

Paradox? Hmmm…

I guess I’d never thought of it this way. I was curious and stumped over the question in general. Why was it a paradox to be myself – a savvy business professional who loves people? When I see people I adore inside and outside the business, my heart warms, my eyes light up, and the first thing I want to do is give them a wonderful energy-filled hug as a greeting or as a goodbye-for-now to a colleague and friend. For those I have known and with whom I have shared so many wonderful memories, I am delighted to then follow up that hug with a kiss on each cheek, a common custom in many cultures. In many cases, these are people I have worked with in the past on some business project or another. After all, based on my experience, great businesses succeed because of great people who enjoy each other and partner together, respecting each colleague’s unique attributes and leveraging those characteristics and talents to build amazing outcomes for all involved. It’s truly all about people! And people are emotional. Yes, women and men are emotional. And I haven’t found one yet that doesn’t like a hug once in a while from someone they enjoy and respect.

Why would she even ask me this question? I started to think of my male colleagues who are amazing, successful, driven leaders – full of charisma and warmth. They also hug colleagues with whom they have built great relationships. Yet I had never heard Brad, Brian, Shawn, Dean or any of the others being asked the question, “What’s with the hugs?”

So my question is, is she asking me this question because I am a woman, and she’s falling into a stereotype about women leaders? In situations where these stereotypes are the accepted way of doing business, either you would have to give up your femininity and act and dress and talk “shop” as if you were a guy, or you would be seen as a “hugger,” which apparently means you have no business savvy, experience, business reinvention, innovation or, heaven forbid, any profit and loss management expertise.

Because of the stigma and stereotypes like this, many women I know have discarded almost everything female about themselves long before getting to the executive suite. I often have looked to see if I somehow missed the blinking neon sign hanging at the entrance of the executive offices: “Insert heart and all emotion in the valet lockbox before entering.” In many cases, I struggle to find one womanly element left in these leaders.

Even more tragic is that I don’t believe they even realize how much of themselves they have allowed to be chipped away and dissolved over the years by trying to fit into the club of boys. I did it too, for a while, unknowingly. I grew up with two brothers who loved giving noogies, tearing car “cookies” in gravel on Main Street, and hosting mud-ball wars with me as the target. I knew all the moves to be a good defensive lineman. (Me? Yes!) Thankfully, I tossed on my black patent Cole Haan Nike Air heels and ran back to my authentic feminine Coco Chanel – smelling self as fast as I could – a self that loves getting my nails and hair done and the feeling of putting on a new smashing dress with a new pair of fierce heels. A self that loves hitting the town for an evening of great dining and dancing, all the while looking and feeling feminine and fabulous. And I know well how to build a new business idea into a large new business – with people at the center of it all.

So it is not one or the other (business savvy or hugs), but instead just being authentic – including hugs and all that I cherish about leaders I meet, male or female. And it is that love of people combined with the skills of creating and building new business models, and driving innovations and organic growth, that makes all the difference.

So, to the reporter, I responded, “Well, I don’t exactly understand your question, because I am who I am – a business-savvy leader who happens to love people and understands the magic that happens when you get to know each person, their strengths and passions, and then engage them in the business so that they get to do what they love doing. Those who love their jobs, after all, bring even more passion, networks of people and innovative ideas to their work. Then they help build an amazing movement of business outcomes with financial results never achieved before and benefiting everyone. Any more questions on the hugs?”

By Julie Gilbert

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