It’s the year of the woman! So say the truth sayers. But the truth is, any year can be YOUR year to step out in bravery and confidence and chart your own course into the executive ranks. However, there is an undeniable momentum building right now for women to excel and exceed in leadership, in both business and politics. The #PressforProgress movement, which was the theme for International Women’s Day 2018, highlights the advancements that are being made at this moment (a record 500 women are running for office in November’s midterm elections), and most importantly, the hope for the future.
Are you ready? Are you ready to capitalize on the progress of those that came before you and seize opportunities to press forward into the leadership ranks? I know it sounds exhilarating and a bit scary at the same time. It was for me, and my journey started more than 30 years ago. Here’s my “Top Five for Tomorrow’s Female Leaders.”
Get Involved. This could also be called “networking,” but it’s so much more. It leads to greater knowledge and relationship building. Get involved in an association or group specific to your industry, and it will not only help you learn more about the business but connect you with people who can mentor you. When I started in the franchising business at Any Lab Test Now in 2007, I had leadership experience but no franchising experience; I needed to learn the industry. I joined the International Franchise Association and the Southeast Franchise Forum and gained valuable perspective on the differences between building relationships with customers vs. building relationships with franchisees. I joined committees and started building relationships with peers beyond a handshake and business card swap. A large organization became much smaller in committee work, and eventually, I became the chairperson of the organization, having grown my network purposefully. Bonus: I not only gained a new group of trusted advisors but a new group of friends.
Speak Up...And Ask for Help. I will admit, I had to learn this one the hard way. As a young woman starting out, I hated asking a boss or peer for help. I thought it was a sign of weakness. As I have matured, I can unequivocally tell you it is a sign of strength. People will respect you more if you ask for clarity on an issue or assignment instead of acting like you know-it-all when you don’t. Not to mention, it’s hard to build a meaningful network if you force yourself to stay on an island. And guess what? A byproduct of asking for help is that you grow in knowledge and experience and pretty soon people are asking YOU for help. You become the resource. You are in a better position to build a more successful career by helping and leading others. One of the most important things I counsel young women to do is ‘speak up!’ Speak up when you have a question; speak up when you have an answer, solution or idea. If you are not speaking, you are not part of the conversation. If you are not part of the conversation, you will not feel part of your company’s success and you will be limiting your own career success.
Learn from Failure. It is so cliché but it is so true. If you aren’t willing to learn and grow from failure (which will happen), you will find yourself stuck, and most likely, unhappy. Every successful leader has a failure story (or two or three) they will tell you propelled them to new heights. Here’s mine. The explosion of the start-up tech industry gave me my first leadership role at 24 years old. By 26, I was VP of Client Services and grew the company to $10 million in sales. They were heady times and I was 100 percent all in. Still, I experienced both gender and age bias when my CEO, in what I think was intended to be a backhanded compliment, said, “You won’t be able to work for anyone else. You provide a lot here but no one else will see value in what you do.” Ouch! Shortly after that, I was laid off when the tech bubble burst. I was emotionally devastated. I had assigned all of my value and identity to my job…and it was gone. I felt like a failure. But going through that painful process taught me a valuable lesson that has served me well since…the need to keep perspective. I didn’t have any in that job. I was so focused on my company, I didn’t take care of my career. I didn’t build a community outside of my work (see tip #1). I rectified that moving forward and now make a point to maintain a healthy relationship with my career, and have a whole being outside of that. It has made me a better leader in so many ways, most notably, it has made me more empathetic.
Develop Empathy (and practice it!). Being a leader means making tough decisions. There’s no avoiding it. Maybe you need to change the direction of a company or department, make an unpopular decision, or probably the toughest thing, terminate employees. These situations are stressful and difficult but often necessary for the company to grow. A good leader understands they will need to endure short-term pain for long-term gain. But how do you do that? With empathy. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to listen to them, and try and understand where they are coming from and what they are going through will make you a stronger leader. If you have some sleepless nights, that is a good sign because it means you are taking it seriously and thinking things through. To make the tough decisions, you may have to compartmentalize the emotional aspect, execute (grieve, if necessary), respond with empathy and move forward. The more you do it, the more confident you will become in your ability to lead. You will also likely be thanked for the way you handle these situations, even by those who are adversely affected, if you act with respect and empathy.
Find YOUR Balance. A lot has been said and written (for both men and women) on the topic of work-life balance. Here’s my two-cents: Don’t take someone else’s balance and make it your own, find your own balance. I wish when I was younger I had spent less time worrying about those age-old issues like: When should I have kids? How do I take months off for maternity leave? Will I lose my career? If you want a career and kids, do it. Know that you will not get as much sleep for a period of years but know that you can do it. There is no ideal time. Just take the leap. But leave the guilt and expectations of others behind. Understand and accept, at your deepest level, that balance for you may look different than balance for your friends. For me, balance comes from designating times of being completely present with my family. I put up the phone at dinner. No work calls, texts, or emails. On vacation, I might log in for 45 minutes a day to keep things moving but then I am totally committed to my husband and four children, physically, mentally and emotionally. My big picture goal is to raise decent human beings. I try very hard to keep that perspective and not get mired down in the mommy-guilt minutiae that leaves so many women feeling perpetually unbalanced. Find YOUR balance and own it, don’t apologize for it.
It is an exciting time for women in business. More than half of the U.S. workforce is women, but in the S&P 500, only 25 percent of executive and senior-level managers are women and only six percent are CEO’s. There is room and a need for today’s young professional women to become tomorrow’s leaders. The momentum is swinging your way, walk through the door and start your journey with confidence and pride.