The US CEO of Siemens got told all the time that she wasn’t ‘executive material,’ and it taught her the most important leadership lesson of her career

“I had leaders communicate to me all the time in my mid-career, ‘Hey, Barb, we really like you and you make great contributions — you’re just not executive material,'” Siemens USA CEO Barbara Humpton told Business Insider.

Humpton became CEO of the German engineering conglomerate’s American branch last June, after a decade of executive roles at various corporations. She credits her career success to recognizing that the whole idea of “executive material” was a lie. “I had this core feeling in my heart that wait, business needs more of what I’m bringing to the table,” she said.

She’s naturally an optimist, she said, and is energetic and enthusiastic. The bias was also linked to overt sexism: As she told Time last year, a leader at IBM once said in 1990 that she had to choose between being a mother or being an executive.

But even if someone had the best intentions with their advice, the prevailing wisdom of the day was that Humpton would have to be more stern and suppress part of her personality. “In the first 20 years of my career, management theory at the time was they wanted to teach us how to correct our deficiencies. ‘We want to teach you how to be the leader that you need to be and so we’re going to send you to school,’ and I wasn’t one to fit the mold.”

The mold certainly didn’t equate with good leadership. As business consultant Marcus Buckingham noted in his best-selling management guide from 1999, “First, Break All the Rules,” the best leaders foster strengths rather than try to correct weaknesses and end up with a team of similarly well-rounded individuals.

Humpton saw “executive material” equated with management through “fear and intimidation,” but knew that her proclivity for “engagement and inspiration” would lend themselves to leadership.

“Looking at my leadership team today here in the US, what I love about this team, we all have different styles, but we all get stuff done,” she said. It’s important that they share goals, like a commitment to creating long-term value and developing their workforce, she said — but the only aspect of their leadership style that matters is that it works for their particular team. (And if someone has more of that old-school, heavy-handed approach to leadership and it works for that person’s team, then that’s great, she said.)

“Something fundamental that I’ve learned over these last few years, is that, first of all you’re going to be most effective when you’re your authentic self,” Humpton said. “The best thing possible is if you can get yourself into a job that aligns well with your natural capabilities — and this one does.”

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