Early in her career, Sandra Shullman, PhD, made the "mistake" of walking through the front door of a prestigious downtown club in a Midwestern city to meet with a corporate client. Back in the late 1970s, the club admitted women as guests, but not members, and they weren't allowed to walk in the front door, required instead to use a "servant's entrance" around the side. A guard tried to block her from going any further, but she ducked past him and into the elevator.
Adding insult to injury, a manager saw her looking for the meeting room, and said, "Miss, you're going in the wrong direction; the changing room for the waitresses is this way," Shullman recalls.
She didn't mention the experience to her client, the second-in-command of a large corporation, and she and her male colleague pressed ahead with their presentation on performance-management strategies.
"You have to stay focused on what you're trying to do," says Shullman.
What Shullman does, as a partner with the Executive Development Group, a small leadership development and consulting firm based in Greensboro, N.C., is help people and organizations learn, grow and change. Specifically, she spends much of her time consulting with the executive leadership of multinational corporations, working in the U.S. and internationally. As an executive coach, Shullman works with individual executives to improve their leadership performance, increase their job satisfaction and the overall effectiveness of their organizations.
In her consulting practice, Shullman offers core advice to both male and female executives: "Leaders help other people figure out what to do, and how to do it," she says.
Shullman describes being a woman as an "inextricable" part of her own leadership style. Top echelons of management are no longer the "boys club" she experienced early in her career, but gender still plays into how she interacts with others and how they see her, she notes.
That's because women sometimes come under more intense scrutiny than their male colleagues, she says.
"It takes a lot less grumpy behavior to get labeled the 'B' word...I think those perceptions are still there, and women have to be much more concerned about managing the impact they have on other people," she says.
However, for Shullman, the pros of being a woman leader outweigh the cons.
"It was harder to get in the door initially. But once you do get in the door, you tend to stay and have longer-lasting business relationships," she says.
Shullman moved into leadership early. After earning a master's degree in guidance and counseling from Harvard University in May 1970, she became the assistant dean of students at Ohio State University at age 24.
That summer before coming to Ohio State, Shullman worked in a Maryland state prison in Hagerstown, conducting psychological and educational testing and assessment of inmates.
She was the first woman in the role, and the male prison guard staff didn't like her presence. One day, they left her locked in one wing of the prison unescorted. She wasn't assaulted by any of the prisoners, but they did their best to scare her, Shullman says.
"I just kept right on walking," she says.
In 1978 after earning a doctorate in counseling psychology from Ohio State, Shullman joined the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a non-profit devoted to studying leadership and leadership development in Greensboro, N.C.
Shullman moved into this job because she wanted to study the kind of roles, behaviors and situations in organizations made it possible for a leader to have a positive effect.
In the 1980s, she and three of her psychologist colleagues founded a business offering individual therapy, employee-assistance programs and organizational consulting in Columbus, Ohio, a firm that eventually grew to 35 employees.
Shullman and her partners sold most of the practice in 1997, and in 1999 Shullman joined the Executive Development Group, working with colleagues from her time with CCL.
A Civil War buff, Shullman is fascinated by leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlin and the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet.
She likes studying Lincoln, because part of what interests her about leadership is the question of what makes some leaders "agile" learners, able to try a new strategy when an old one fails.
"That's always intrigued me, how people figure out what to do next, and how to get through all the distractions and get to the essence of what's going on," she says.