On Leadership, Vulnerability and the Dangers of a Sticky Floor
14th January 2019
Photos by Ilja van Haaren
Illustrations by Naz Costante
Zhenya Starkova
Business Development

“There are enough leaders, managers out there, who are forceful, aggressive even. That’s not my style – I believe a lot can be achieved with respect, interaction, the act of listening. I’d like to think that we can all be nice to each other.”

This suddenly reminds me of a book I read a few years ago – Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. The research presented by the authors hit several sore spots in my psyche and had an empowering effect on me. At the same time, I appreciated the empathic approach which did not necessarily advocate that women overcome gender stereotypes by employing traditionally male strategies, and instead develop effective negotiation tactics that worked comfortably for them.

I catch myself wondering whether I am being complacent by not challenging my own preconceptions and immediately labeling Ilja’s approach as a trait of successful female leadership. To be honest, it is hard not to have the bias, for I have a history of working with Ilja –  close enough to observe her leadership style, but always from a superficial distance: strategic meetings, project briefings, events. She formulates her thoughts carefully, and presents them as conclusions, summaries, bridges and directives – rarely have I had an opportunity to see her thoughts play a loose game of brainstorm.

“Very quickly in my career, I realized that all the interesting stuff happens at the top and that I want to be there, but of course you start where everyone else does.”

Ilja is 59, a beautiful woman, always impeccable in style and bearing. When talking, she looks you in the eye, her expression revealing both keen interest and a degree of guardedness. I am hesitant to ask uncomfortable questions.

I raise the issue of age and age bias. Is it more difficult to exercise a leadership ambition in a professional environment when you are younger?  Or can these challenges be written off as lack of experience?

According to Ilja, leadership – in its different forms – is needed at all levels of an organization, so even in the early career we have the opportunity to fulfil a certain level of that ambition. She laughs: “Very quickly in my career, I realized that all the interesting stuff happens at the top and that I want to be there, but of course you start where everyone else does.”

In her first job, Ilja was a sales executive in a hotel chain, recruited directly from a hotel management school. A little while later, the hotel launched an international traineeship program, to which only her male colleagues were invited. She didn’t think twice about asking for an invitation to compete for a place in the program, ultimately getting a spot.

“You simply ask. You take that initiative, even when it is scary. It is also a form of leadership. They say the worst that can happen is a ‘no’, but in my experience even that can often be avoided if you present your case intelligently”.

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