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Interview with Elaine Allison

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Elaine Allison is a management consultant, professional speaker, a wife and mother. She has enthralled audiences from coast to coast in both Canada and the United States with her lively presentations and affable style. She is a particular favorite at women's conferences. Early in her career, Elaine began honing her insights into the differences between how men and women lead and manage. She was one of Canada's first female prison guards in an all "male" maximum security correctional facility at the age of nineteen. Dealing almost entirely with men, at a time when men made it clear that they did not want women in their domain. Elaine had a "crash course" in understanding how we interact with each other and manage people, as her life virtually depended on it! She began to truly observe how women dealt with conflict, leadership and power, themes she built on in each new position in her career.

Elaine, what prompted you to write The Velvet Hammer?
So many reasons, this is a long one. (There was also just as many reasons not to write the book, so read on).
 
I knew first hand, men and women had to lead differently
 
I learned this early as I worked in an all-male maximum security prison at the age of 19 as one of Canada's first female prison guards, back in the seventies (part of affirmative action) I realized quickly, that women had to lead differently than men.  My life depended on it.  I shared these stories and examples for years, then put my experiences good or bad into a book to teach others.
 
Women kept telling me - that will work for me? 
 
While speaking and training across North America, I had many women come up to me after the session and say "That technique will work perfectly for women - you should put it into a book".  When I mentioned they were just leadership skills that both genders could use, many of them retorted by saying no, “That way you taught us - is just kind enough, or just forthright enough without going overboard or backing down”. 
 
98% of the books on leadership, were written by men
 
When I went to the bookstore to find books written by women for women on the topic of leadership, 98% were written by men offering tactics that may not always work for women… or they were written in a tone that didn't always resonate with me (I wondered if other women reading the books felt the same way).  I asked, was there something missing in the marketplace?  Was there a need for a mentoring “skills based” book for women, written by a woman, so more women would be encouraged to step in to leadership, or step up into more prominent leadership roles?  I believed this to be true.
 
There is still a huge gap
 
There is still a huge gap between female middle managers (50.3% according to www.catalystwomen.org) and female management at the top. In almost all industries including politics, sport, religion, corporate, law, medicine and government, I found this to be true.  I studied the reasons why for almost two years, and came up with my own conclusions and opinions on the topic. 
 
We get better results when we blend and celebrate how men and women lead.
 
It has been proven that when we blend and celebrate the differences in how men and women lead the majority of organizations can be more efficient and profitable. According to The Tyson Report, it notes "That in one American study that companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams they performed much better financially than those without - a 35% higher return on equity and a 34% higher total return to shareholders". It just makes sense for more women to step in and make the contribution they can.  So my book and my speaking mission is to help more women step into leadership.  That is why the graphic of the woman stepping forward on the front cover was perfect.
 
Your book is about helping women succeed in leadership roles. What do you see as the major challenges in women being promoted to those leadership roles?
 
We often code women's leadership behaviors as wrong
 
Both men and women often code "women's leadership behaviors" as wrong. It has been cemented into most of our subconscious minds’ that certain behaviors are not becoming of a strong leader - and most of our role models that have inherently taught us what is expected throughout our history, have been male.  If a woman exhibits a their inherent nurturing trait - she can be deemed weak.  If she exhibits behavior that is deemed too pushy or strong (for a woman) she is called a "b".  Can a woman win?  Are we not a confused nation in what we want in a female leader?  Does Hilary stand a chance if or when she runs?  Is America ready?  If she smiles too much - we'll say she is flighty, if she doesn't smile enough we'll say she is not warm.  There are just so many examples I see all the time. 
 
In fact, Canada and the US don't even rank in the top 12 countries for most women in the legislature; Rwanda is number one, followed by the next 3 spots being in Europe.  I don't think anyone is intentionally holding women down, I thing culturally we are confused and we’ve got a lot of training to do to change societies view.
 
A lot of women don't have access to a strong female mentor
 
What I have seen (and this is why the book is for women who don't golf), is that men have enjoyed a prime location to get access to mentorship.  Golf!  On the course they can ask more senior role models, how did you handle that or what is the best way you've seen....?  It is like getting access to free consulting.  Like many women, I was encouraged to take up golf if I wanted to get ahead. So, I took up golf.  What I found as a busy professional woman and a often responsible for running a busy household, I didn't truly have the time to golf frequently enough to get good at it.  I was a frustration to my male counterparts (and often the entertainment value).  Secondly, when I did ask for advice, I tried the tactic and it often back fired for me - as what worked for a man, didn't always come across the same way for a woman.  Women need more access to successful female mentors who have figured out tactics that work exceptionally well for them.
 
Could you tell our readers the way men and women differ in leadership styles?
 
Brains, hormones and as mentioned earlier - cultural expectations.
 
Science suggests that brains, hormones and cultural expectations all play a role here. Woman won't lead like men, they are not hard-wired the same.
 
Disclaimer: The items noted, are broad generalizations. Not every man or every woman behaves as noted below.
 
Brains
MRI and PET scans have shown that when men are tasking one hemisphere lights up, in women, both hemispheres light up.  One can summarize this is why men seem amazing at focus and vision whereas, women are amazing multi-taskers. In most leadership books written by men the ability for "Vision and Focus" is the heralded skill.  Women often use a more holistic or multi-dimensional approach when leading.
 
It may also explain why women typically prefer a more inclusive and collaborative way of dealing with things (holistic)… and appear to have a stronger preference towards the team approach. When women communicate, they prefer face to face conversations; men do better with activities where they don't face each other - like golf and fishing when they have discussions. Women would often rather do lunch. The female brain seems to have a need "to talk" it over, and they typically use more words per day than men.  According to book, The Female Brain – 20,000 words per day vs. 7,000. We are hard wired differently and brain research has proven this, why would we not lead differently?
 
Women have more emotional centers in the brain, and from time to time – will cry in the boardroom or in public. It is not a sign of weakness, but that something matters.  It is how she demonstrates that they were passionate about a task, project or concept.  Any woman who has worked hard at something and watch it fall apart can easily have this reaction.  Men will typically slam their fist or display anger.  Due to the hard wiring of the brain, the tears will often come – it is like trying to hold back a sneeze.  It’s coming whether you like it or not.    However, if a woman is crying frequently, they may need to seek further support, but the one time that this happens, women or others on the team, should not beat them up for this behavior.
 
Hormones
Recent research has shown, when men are under stress they produce more adrenaline (the flight or fight hormone), and women they've recently discovered…. produce more oxytocin, (the hormone the female body produces when a woman gives birth or is breast feeding and provides the need to nurture, friend and befriend). When a crisis hits in the workplace, a man will want to fix it or leave it alone, a woman may want to call a meeting or discuss the issue. (This can sometimes cause gossip or "mean girl syndrome" in office environments, especially if one is managing large groups of women).  It is not that women want to speak untoward about others, it could just be a hormonal response; women may just need to be supported differently than men during times of stress.
 
Your book has several personal stories about your own leadership challenges. Would you tell the readers one of your favorite stories from the book?
 
Probably the first story is one of my favorites. It illustrates a key point.
 
It began on my third day on the job.  All the inmates walked out naked when I had to go inside the unit for the first time - to serve breakfast. I had not even seen a "real live one yet" (if you know what I mean).  I was mortified. It was at that moment that I knew women had to lead differently than men.  They had not done this to my male counterpart who had been training me for the last couple of days, but they were doing it to me.  My male colleague could have easily stated "Get back into your cells and get your pants on - that is a direct order"!  If I had done that, they would have done it, but snickered under their breath (thinking oh good - how can we get her tomorrow). 
 
In the moment, I didn't know what to do (I was 19), so, I ignored it, looked at the ceiling or at a wall, (out of now knowing where to look).  I was going to resign from my great paying job that night - despite, having gone to college for a correctional worker program that my parents had paid for (my original goal was to work with children in trouble with the law - more about why that didn't happen - is talked about in the book).
 
In the morning, I decided I just needed another tactic.  So with as much confidence in my voice, I kicked on each cell door (like a knock on the door), and said "If you want breakfast - get up and get dressed".  By the time I came around to the first cell again, they were all dressed - and they never came out naked in front of me again.  The first Velvet Hammer technique in the book is "Set expectations up front", without anger or contempt (even if someone has behaved badly), just tell people what you need.
 
Can men benefit at all from The Velvet Hammer, or is this a book for women only?
 
A lot of men have ordered the book off the website directly.  When I followed up with several, they commented, I needed the book for my wife or daughter who is struggling, or I just wanted to learn what the differences were.  Yes, men who are seeking a softer approach are finding the techniques can and do work for them (some find the tactics too wishy-washy).  The skills noted in the book are still at the end of the day, required leadership skills (just from a woman's voice).  The book reads like a "seminar in a book" complete with checklists, assessments and worksheets.  They are also offered as free downloads at www.thevelvethammer.com site.  It is an easy book to read as I realized women didn't have a lot of time.
 
Did you have any formal training in writing before beginning your book? If so, what was it? And if not, what gave you the confidence to write a book?
 
No, in fact I didn't write for years as I lacked the confidence.  When I went back to university for English literature, I realized I still couldn't form a sentence and the red ink marked all over my papers, was excruciatingly painful to my ego.  I'm a speaker, not necessarily a writer.  Finally someone said to me, well –“just write it down and hire an editor”.  It was like the old light bulb going off in my head.
 
I got turned down by 38 publishers who stated I didn't have a PhD, nor had I run a major corporation, so therefore, I didn't have much credibility.  I was not writing for the academic market, or the female executive, but for the front line to middle management female leader and for men who wanted to know what the differences were.  (The 80% of the bell curve), so I didn't understand why they felt I needed this.  So I did it anyway and self published. I did however make sure I designed the book, so it did not have a self-published look and feel.
 
Although I did not get any formal training, I studied the publishing industry through a variety of avenues such as; books, workshops and conferences.  Plus I had a few mentors and excellent book coaches.  Sam Horn, who helped me with the structure and creative side of the book (author of POP) www.samhorn.com, and Dan Poynter, the self publishing guru (author of The Self Publishing Manual) www.parapublishing.com were instrumental to the process.  In addition, I joined the eWomen Publishing Network who assists women authors realize their dream of writing and publishing their first book.  www.ewomenpublishingnetwork.com  (they are encouraged and supported to explore both traditional publishing and self publishing).
 
Do you have any advice for other writers who want to author non-fiction books about their own challenges and successes?
 
As Dan Poynter said, "Don't die with a book inside you".  This was scrolled across my screen saver for two years.  My Mother died on my 45th birthday.  She knew my dream was to write a book since I was ten years old.  I just didn't know it was going to be a business book.  She never got to see it. Two weeks after she passed away, I got diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), so I didn't know how long I'd be able to get on an airplane and keep flying around to teach.  I needed another vehicle to keep teaching. These two major life events stopped the procrastination.  My advice, don’t wait for the right moment…  just start writing your book and worry about the details later.

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98% of the leadership books have been written by men, often the tactics suggested don't work for a woman. Discover a myriad of Velvet Hammer techniques in this amazing "how to" book where you will find skills, ideas and tips to help you handle your leadership role eloquently and gracefully all while getting things done on your terms.
 
Elaine Allison
The Velvet Hammer

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museitupeditor@yahoo.ca