For Jenn Donahue, being the only woman in the room is normal
For Jenn Donahue, being the only woman in the room is normal. A former Naval officer, civil engineer, and business founder, Donahue’s no stranger to leadership. Having led reconnaissance missions from earthquakes and tsunamis, built bridges across the Euphrates river in the midst of the Iraq war, and served as technical expert on seismology in five nuclear power plants, Donahue knows a thing or two about commanding respect. Speaking to HRD, she revealed that it’s high time women in the workplace stop trying act out a traditionally ‘male’ approach to management.
“We need to stop ‘leading like men’,” she told HRD. “You don’t have to be a ‘yeller’ to command respect and loyalty from your team. One of my first tasks when I was a junior officer was to lead a department of about 13 people – bearing in mind I’d never lead before. I looked at the men who were my superiors and they were all yellers. That’s how they motivated their team, that’s how they pushed them to be better. And so, I thought – ‘okay, I’m going to have to start shouting’. I equated yelling with leadership – which is simply not the case.
“It eventually got to the point where I realised that this just wasn’t me. I felt really awful about it actually. It was confusing because this was the way I’d been taught to lead – this is how I thought I had to lead – but at the same time I knew it wasn’t right.”
Donahue took some time to self-reflect and even partook in a personality quiz – just to see if that held any answers.
“The test told me things I didn’t realise about myself,” she explained. “I’m a compassionate leader, I’m a selfless leader. There were all attributes I possessed that I didn't know I had. And I could use these characteristics to lead in my own way. It’s super important do conduct a self-analysis and understand who you are as a leader, before you can lead other people.”
Living in a man’s world has always been a reality for Donahue – something which prepared her for a distinguished Naval career.
“I’ve been in a male-dominated world since I was about six years old,” she told HRD. “The block I grew up on was all boys, so I was climbing trees and playing with them most of the time. Then in high school, a lot of my classes were majority male – I love the maths and sciences, which always had more boys than girls. I started to learn more about how they think, how they work, and how they talk, until I started to adapt that same style in order to fit in. I went to college - I was an engineer and I was one of two women in my class.”
From there Donahue went on to join the Navy. And though she always knew she was the only girl in the room, she never felt it or let it impact her goals.
“To be honest, I didn't look at it as the only female in the room,” she continued. “I always wanted to be the best person in the room – the most qualified, the greatest leader.”
This passion for excellence goes beyond Donahue’s personal goals – it’s something she wants to instil in the leaders of tomorrow. Developing pipelines of top female talent is something Donahue wants employers to take more seriously.
“I think employers need to reach out and help women find more opportunities in senior leadership,” she continued. “It’s not as easy as thinking – oh, there’s a woman, I’ll just promote her. I think there's a lot of other things that need to go into it. Find the resources, give them your time, understand the person on the other side of the paper. When we look at different resumes and CVs, it's really easy to be jaded and have biases based on personal experiences. Instead, find a candidate in which you can see that fire, that drive. Ensure you’re not just making decisions based on what you see in a resume. Look deeper than that.”
Speaking of strong female role models, HRD recently looked into the seismic gender gap in senior executive roles. Take a look here.