This topic comes up frequently in executive and management coaching. I find myself discussing someone’s professional goals, feedback from their boss, or outcomes from an objective evaluation. How does one discern between what might seem like a lack of skill or just differences in style?

Generalizations of any kinds are never 100% accurate, and there are many male business leaders who embrace the strengths of the women on their teams. That being said, women executives confront style versus skill challenges every day. All too often a woman executive will have a different approach than her male counterparts. She is frequently more diplomatic or relational, and tends to keep score on a long-range perspective. Women executives do not have the same kinds of ego dynamics that men do. I coach women executives differently because their approaches to similar situations are often different. We often discuss ways to leverage the differences that naturally exist and how to navigate the delicate situations that are style differences, rather than skill. The ways men and women managers and executives approach a given situation is like a Venn diagram. For example, imagine a list of possible ways both genders consider when tackling a productivity issue. Outside of the common options, they both have individual approaches in different directions. Many times these are simply a difference in style and not lack of skill.

When the different genders report to each other; men to women, and in turn, women reporting to men, the style versus skills discussion is bound to come up. Where do we draw the line between style and skills? Let me clarify, I’m not discussing work place discrimination, it’s much more nuanced than that. Ideally, we are talking about being open to endorsing the strengths that both, men and women bring to the boardroom rather than trying to make each other fit into old management paradigms. Muscling our way through problems may work in the short-term, but could the possible collateral damage be a problem down the road? Some of the more traditionally male approaches in business could benefit from a more diplomatic and conversational approach.

The future of business success is rarely achieved by doing things the same way year over year. Successful companies are nimble and open to novel and creative approaches. My advice is to check your own personal understanding of what you may think is style versus skills when working with the opposite gender in your management or executive teams. Your next CEO or Global Executive VP may have a different approach, and may be exactly what your company needs to take the business to the next level. As society and business grows and evolves the discussion will become less about style versus skills and about “my approach versus your approach”.