In the course of just one week I learned all I should ever need to know about supervising, managing, and leading female employees:

  • In a conference breakout session, I was told positive reinforcement and encouragement will get the best out of female employees (and if I do have to give constructive feedback, I should first find a way to spin it in positive terms) because where women are concerned, positive feedback is everything.
  • In a seminar for Fortune 500 executives, I was told flex hours, flex workdays, flex workloads--flex everything--is the best way to engage and retain female employees, because where women are concerned, flexibility is all-important.
  • In a Masters level leadership class, I was told that women want but are significantly less likely to ask for training opportunities than men, so to grow the skills of female employees, creating and following formal development plans makes all the difference.

What a week! And those are just the highlights. Too bad I really didn't learn anything--at least not anything useful.

Granted women are different. Men are different too. But is it possible that every female has the same preferences and characteristics?

Of course not. Men are different, women are different--but more to the point, people are different. Every individual is different. Every person brings a different set of goals, experiences, skills, talents, and perspectives. That means every individual has a different--better yet, an ideal--way they should be treated, managed, and led.

No one, male or female, responds to criticism the same way. No one, male or female, seeks the same types of latitude, autonomy, and flexibility. No one seeks the same types of training, the same types of opportunities, much less has the same willingness to step forward to ask for those opportunities.

So I didn't really learn anything because all I was told is how to manage generalizations and stereotypes, and that guidance, while interesting--and sparking some heated discussions among participants--isn't helpful. Leaders may be responsible for managing groups, but leaders ultimately lead individuals.

And every individual, female and (yes, even) male, is different.

So what is the best way to lead a female employee? Start by forgetting she's a woman. Ignore stereotypes. Start by ignoring sweeping generalizations. Start by understanding there may be overall gender differences. Then go a lot deeper.

For example:

Understand that female employees appreciate positive reinforcement (who doesn't?), but what matters is how each individual responds to recognition.

Many people enjoy public praise. Others cringe if they are made the center of attention. Some just appreciate a quiet word of thanks. Your job is to find out what makes the greatest impact for each individual--and do that for that person.

Understand that female employees value flexibility (who doesn't?), but what matters is the type of flexibility each individual values.

One may appreciate flexible hours; another may appreciate occasionally working from home; another may love the option of carving out meeting-free blocks of time. Your job is to find out what each individual values in terms of flexibility and latitude--and provide that.

Understand that female employees want more training and development (who doesn't?), but what matters is the kinds of opportunities each individual seeks and how they best learn.

Formal training is great for some. But others want the freedom to step in and help and learn on the job. Your job is to find out what each individual hopes to achieve--and do that.

Female employees aren't one size fits all, and accepting sweeping generalizations is dangerous because it allows us to think we're doing the right things when in fact we're not.

Instead, forget the fact one employee is female. Forget the fact another is male. Gender differences, while interesting, are only a small slice of what makes each individual different. To lead, you must first take the time to truly know the person and then adapt how you lead to the interests, needs, and goals of that individual.

That's how you lead female employees.

That's how you lead every employee, because the gender doesn't matter.

Where great leadership is concerned, all that matters is knowing and adapting to the different needs, interests, and goals of each person.