Here’s what you can learn from John Kelly’s new deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen
Sometimes being the heavy means throwing your weight around.
Some White House officials and Trump advisers believe Chief of Staff John Kelly’s newly appointed No. 2, Kirstjen Nielsen, has struck a tone that can be “dismissive and lacking in collegiality” as she helps her boss corral a disordered West Wing, a recent Politico report says.
Nielsen, a longtime Kelly aide and onetime member of George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Council, reportedly cancels meetings with senior aides if someone is tardy and has tightened access to her boss. She seeks to bar unwelcome subordinates from “principals only” meetings and maintains Kelly’s roster of officials — including ex-”Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault — whose presence he considers unsuitable for top-level meetings, according to the New York Times. Senior White House officials, meanwhile, say there’s been a lack of communication with other aides — while Trump loyalists have reportedly branded her “Nurse Ratched,” a nod to the cruel antagonist of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Serving as the enforcer puts Nielsen in a tricky position — similar to the one that apparently pushed Katie Walsh, deputy to Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, out of her post just two months into the administration. But while Priebus would reportedly undermine his No. 2, Kelly has emboldened his. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for her part, told Moneyish that “Kirstjen is doing a great job, working with all members of the team and helping move the presidents (sic) agenda forward.”
So is the apparent backlash to Nielsen’s management style warranted, or just pushback to a woman in power? How effective might her strategies be in a conventional workplace, and how could they work better? We asked some executive coaches and leaders.
“She walks into an environment of chaos — and by the way, it could be politics, it could be a business, it could be a corporation: Women … will walk into a chaotic environment and they’re given a directive to put the house in order or to implement change, an order that involves not being nice,” Alicia M. Rodriguez, founder and president of the executive and leadership development firm Sophia Associates Inc., told Moneyish. “(But) women have the unfortunate circumstances of being associated with nice. And if you’re not nice, then you’re the B-word.”
Michelle Friedman, founder of Advancing Women’s Careers, LLC, sees two parts to Nielsen’s situation: her role as Kelly’s “enforcer,” and the style or approach she uses to accomplish that role. “Where a man might be seen as assertive, a woman might be seen as aggressive,” she told Moneyish. “Women are penalized sometimes for the assertiveness even though they’re told over and over again to be more assertive — and it becomes a catch-22.”
A coercive leadership style may be warranted in a tumultuous, high-turnover atmosphere like the West Wing, Rodriguez argued, but it won’t age well if it doesn’t infuse some emotional intelligence and empathy. “If you’re in a plane and the engine goes out, you don’t take a vote about whether or not you should jump — someone’s gotta yell ‘Jump!’” she said. “That kind of directive style is appropriate for situations that are emergencies or critical situations, but it’s not necessarily sustainable over the long run.” There’s no need to change your personality, but simple niceties like “please,” “thank you” and “how are you doing?” go a long way, she said.
“If (Nielsen is) going to be in it for the long run, she’s going to have to be able to work with people,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think she needs to be liked; I think she needs to be respected.”
An email containing mandates or instructions might even touch upon “the reason that (the situation is) black and white” and there isn’t any wiggle room, said executive coach Ann Mehl. “There could be a way to have it land differently,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the ‘why’ that people are confused about.”
When it comes to excluding people from upper-level meetings, communication before the fact can help, Mehl added. If three people from a boardroom of 10 need to split off to make a final decision, she said, there’s a way to acknowledge that closed meeting while assuring the excluded parties they’re still essential to the process. “You’re important enough to be acknowledged about it, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be invited to our three-person coffee that we’re going to have tomorrow,” she suggested.
Jenifer J. Foley, a partner at the Manhattan law firm Alter, Wolff & Foley, also stressed transparency: If a junior associate spent all night drafting a motion and wanted to come along to court the next day, Foley said, she might tell her: “It could be good for you to learn; you deserve to learn what happens with this — but the client can’t afford it or it’s not really a wise use of time … or we might say it sends the wrong message to the judge that there’s two or three people on a case.” Point is, she said, “there’d be communication about it. I wouldn’t just go off to court and leave her not knowing why she didn’t come.”
Foley favors giving honest feedback to subordinates in real time so that year-end reviews never come as a surprise, and setting boundaries while staying cordial. “I think it’s really important that there’s transparency and an open door and that people feel like they can come and talk to me,” she said. “They know that I might have to do things that they don’t like — but that doesn’t mean we don’t discuss it.”
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