Farewell Joan, from this "Joan Ranger"
Farewell Joan, from this “Joan Ranger”

I was so sad yesterday at the passing of Joan Rivers. I remember listening to her comedy albums (yeah, I’m that old) in high school and laughing at jokes that I could relate to — “slide down please” — because they were directed at me, a girl.

I’ve written before about the worst advice I ever got — “Do a good job, Heather, and they will notice you” — which resulted in me being overlooked for a promotion. Needless to say, this lead me to becoming very proactive marketing me in my career.

I read this essay by Ms. Rivers today, Joan Rivers: Why Johnny Carson “Never Ever Spoke to Me Again,” and I got it:

… when I say, “No, this is wrong,” people say: “See? She is a bitch. She is a c—.” If I were a man, they’d say: “So brilliant. He’s tough, but he’s right.” Nobody ever says to me, “You’re right.”

I have a friend. She was a producer at NBC and so brilliant. And they fired her because she was very abrasive. Lorne Michaels has a reputation of being a tough nut. But they all say, “That Lorne, he’s mean, but he’s brilliant.”

This woman, they said, “Oh, she’s too nasty.” But she pulled in the numbers.

So true. I have found that while I am being tasked with bringing in the same results as a man, I will sometimes be dinged because I stepped out of the mold of a woman.

I recently received some competing advice in the same day:

I first received a little unsolicited advice from someone I truly respect and who knows me well. He explained that I am too firm and confident when stating my position in a group setting, and this can turn people off; that I should soften it up a bit so as not to come off too harsh, which can lead me to be seen as too stubborn or a know-it-all. I’m not sure if the word abrasive was used, but I was getting the picture. He suggested that in meetings I might want to consider acknowledging the value of the other person’s opinion or point-of-view, and where I agree with them, before presenting my own.

I listened to what he had to say, looking for the truth in it, and then wondered how many men he has told the same thing?

Please read: I did not dismiss what he had to say. I took it all in and looked at it and myself through his eyes.

I then walked into my leadership class and was told that as a leader I should not begin my statements or presentations with “I think” or “I believe” because of course I think it, and I believe it, because I am saying it. I should be firm. Strong. Confident. This is my position.This is why I am in the room. This is why I have a seat at the table. Because of what I think, believe, and know.

Which is great advice … for a man.

The truth for me, I came to realize, rests somewhere in between.

From Joan:

From the beginning, and to this day, I would never tell a lie onstage. So now I walk out, I go, “I’m so happy to see you,” and I really truly am so happy to see them. The one thing I brought to this business is speaking the absolute truth. Say only what you really feel about the subject. And that’s too bad if they don’t like it. That’s what comedy is. It’s you telling the truth as you see it.

When I am truthful, honest, and authentic in a room, the energy I receive from others, through our connection, is amazing. Do I make some people uncomfortable? Yes. Do I want to do that? Of course not. However, this is not a dinner party in my home, and I am not being paid to be a good host.

If I am not saying something that pushes the boundaries of the comfort zone on the issues at hand, then I am not doing my job right. I am playing it too safe. I cannot get by telling you what you want to hear. I also have come to accept that if you are going to hear what I have to say, it has to be loud enough to get through the packaged deal that I am. On numerous occasions I have had people say to me, shockingly, “I didn’t realize you were so smart.” Seriously. People tell me that. To my face.

My goal is not to be just like a man, but to get accomplished what I need to get accomplished. If I am to be successful and get you to hear what it is I am saying, and taking action upon it, then I need to find the balance between strong and confident, and the biases that come with being a woman in the workforce. And that was a difficult pill to swallow. And a great lesson learned.

Whether they realize it or not, men in leadership or climbing the corporate ladder really don’t have to worry about this: Be strong and confident, but not too much. Be smart and assertive, but not too much. Be attractive and poised, but not too distracting.

So I build my coalitions. I build my fan base. I tell the truth, and I tell on myself. I am open and willing to hear what you have to say, and to learn more about myself. When I push too hard or cross a line, I apologize immediately. I warn people in advance: “I process out loud, so feel free to interrupt me and argue the other position. I need to hear it.” Or, “‘No’ is a perfectly acceptable answer.” Reading “Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when the stakes are high” helped me a lot in this area. I cannot be so confident that I come off as a bully, or do not make the room a safe place for the sharing of ideas.

And sometimes, no matter how hard I try to balance it all, people still don’t like me or get me, even though they appreciate the results. And I’m okay with that. Ya gotta have haters.

As Joan taught me early on in life:

F*** ’em if they don’t get the joke.

And THAT is the best piece of advice I have ever received.