by Deb Boelkes, author of “Strong Suit: Leadership Success Secrets From Women on Top“
Women are just as likely as men to aspire to senior roles in their organizations, but they face a myriad of obstacles and prejudices that their male counterparts simply… don’t. Their career trajectories continue to be disproportionately affected by unequal pay, fewer promotions, microaggressions, gender bias, the so-called “motherhood penalty,” and more. As female graduates enter (or re-enter) the workforce, how can they best navigate these barriers while climbing the ladder and advocating for themselves?
Many organizations are proactively addressing these issues. But here is a message all rising women needs to hear: We are our own best resource in closing the equity gap so that all women have a truly fair opportunity to succeed and lead.
Why should the newest generation of emerging leaders enter their careers with little to no tribal knowledge of what it means to work toward the upper levels of leadership as a woman? Instead of climbing from the ground up, rising women should be standing on the shoulders of the women who came before them.
Having worked with and mentored hundreds of female leaders, many of whom were C-level, most are eager to offer a hand to their sisters still climbing the ladder.
I began my career at a time when the business world was much more male-dominated than it is today, and I surmounted a lot of obstacles on my own. I want to pass the lessons I learned on to rising female leaders so they can spend their time and energy learning new lessons and breaking new barriers. After all, that’s what equity in ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ (DEI) is all about: helping others access opportunities so that equality can eventually be achieved.
Here are eight insights from my book “Strong Suit: Leadership Success Secrets From Women on Top“ that will help young women take their first steps into the workforce with confidence:
Your past helps mold who you are — but it doesn’t have to define what you can accomplish.
We all learn lessons and pick up traits — both positive and negative — from our parents and other formative figures. Their expectations and opinions of us help shape our trajectories. Most of us were probably told, “You can do anything you set your mind to,” but we may have also absorbed negative lessons (either explicit or implied) about women’s roles and our own capabilities.
Ultimately, your background does not determine whether you can make it to the top. This is something a lot of us know in theory, but have trouble internalizing. We carry limiting — and inaccurate — assumptions about what we have to offer and what our place in the world should be. Try to identify these beliefs and use them as a springboard for positive action.
Even in this day and age (like it or not!) appearance matters.
I acknowledge that this advice goes against some schools of popular thought, but it’s a truth that today’s rising leaders still need to live by. Every day is a dress rehearsal for the C-suite (or whatever goal you are working toward), and your appearance impacts how others perceive you.
The women I interviewed (in my book) were pleased that expectations regarding appearance are not as stringent, and perhaps unfair, as they used to be. But they all agreed that presence does matter, even in fields where individuality, creativity, and informality are the norm. Here’s my advice: Don’t think of it as dressing to ‘please’ others. You aren’t. All of us — men and women — should use our appearance as a tool to positively influence how others respond to us.
Stop being sorry for asking questions and sharing your opinion.
Many women tend to minimize themselves, usually unconsciously. They’ll say things like, “Sorry, but I have a question,” or, “I could be wrong, but…” Sometimes they’d rather not say anything than share an opinion that hasn’t been thoroughly thought-out and researched. (This happens less often with men!) I urge all women to remember: You got to where you are because you are smart, qualified, and capable. Teachers, mentors, and past leaders have already seen those things in you, so continue to showcase them moving forward.
Linda Rutherford, executive vice president and chief communications officer of Southwest Airlines, recalls that after being promoted to VP, she initially struggled to speak up in the boardroom. “If I had a thought before, sometimes I would whisper it to the person next to me. But then the room did not benefit from that thought or that perspective. I have learned that my value is to share that thought or that perspective with everyone in the room.”
“Executive” and “emotionless” aren’t synonyms.
As the leader of a peer mentoring program for C-level women, I have met many women who think that in order to reach “the top,” they need to be calm, collected, stoic, unemotional, and mentally tough at all times. These female leaders hide or shut down any expression of empathy, anxiety, indecision, or even joy. They hold other people at arm’s length to avoid dealing with emotional upheaval.
No wonder we think it’s lonely at the top! For many years, female leaders did have to tamp down so-called expressions of femininity as they fought to ascend the male-dominated ranks. That’s why, as we continue to work toward equity, it’s so important to have friendships with other women at your level. Build an inner circle where you can be candid and can count on support and authentic advice. As you continue to advance, maintain warm and supportive relationships with industry peers, direct reports, and high-potentials downline.
Leadership is not about your skills. It’s about your people.
Some leaders, especially new ones, are stuck in the mindset that their success hinges on the technical skills they were judged on prior to their promotion. But leadership isn’t about how well you can do something; it’s about how well you can develop, engage, and motivate your team so that they can do that task. Your first priority as a leader is assembling and empowering a great team, followed by removing any obstacles that stand in the way of their success. When you enable everyone to perform at their individual best, you’ll all cross the finish line together.
Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Kathleen M. Gainey agrees. “What I quickly learned is, people are your most important resource. If you invest in people, they will take care of you. When you make a mistake, they will correct it… If you have created an environment where they can share information with you and not…be yelled at, or screamed at, they will share things with you that you need to know.”
Assessments exist for a reason. Use them.
It can be surprisingly challenging to answer the question, “What are your strong suits?” A true strong suit isn’t just something you’re good at; it should also bring you joy and tie into your purpose. To help you zero in on these sometimes-elusive strengths, how they manifest in your life, and how to best leverage them, I recommend assessments like CliftonStrengths and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
Knowing what makes you stand out can give you a big leg up and help you become the best version of yourself. Focusing on what you are really great at and love doing will elevate your performance and enhance your authenticity. You’ll be comfortable with yourself as well as your evolving roles and responsibilities, rather than feeling like an imposter or a square peg in a round hole as you climb the ladder.
If you choose to improve in one area, make it soft skills.
Communication and relationship-management skills are what build a great culture (I am adamant that a great culture is what leads to great metrics, not the other way around). Yet — despite the fact that this generation of workers has made it clear how much they value good relationships with their leaders — there is a noted “soft-skill gap” in many business education programs. That’s why I recommend identifying role models and adopting their behaviors, attitudes, and methods.
There is a big gap between understanding organizational theory and becoming an inspirational leader. The only way to fill it is through observing and, more importantly, doing. Start by treating people the way you would want to be treated and consciously inspiring them to be their best. You’ll instinctively feel which tactics work and can build from there. The good news is, so-called soft skills like communication, empathy, emotional intelligence, and flexibility tend to be innate for many women — so lean into your feminine strengths!
You may be able to “have it all” — if you have help.
The concept of “having it all” — and whether that’s even possible — has sparked fierce debate. Based on my own experience and the feedback I’ve received from fellow executive mothers, women can enjoy a fulfilling career and a strong family life — but success in this endeavor has to be a team effort.
Just like building a successful executive career, raising children demands large amounts of time, energy, and emotional investment. Sharing the load with others who are also invested in your child’s future should not be seen as a weakness or failure, but as a prudent decision to enhance everyone’s well-being. You’ll need a supportive partner, a trusted network of family and friends, or reliable outside childcare — often all three!
Especially when you are just starting your career, or perhaps transitioning to a new role or industry, the path toward leadership can be murky and the stakes can feel overwhelming. But truly, you are not alone. I have seen firsthand how powerful it is when successful women advise, develop, and support their sisters. Whether it’s in person, online, or through resources like videos, podcasts, and books, I urge you to seek out female role models… and eventually, become a mentor yourself.
Deb Boelkes is the author of “Strong Suit: Leadership Success Secrets From Women on Top“. Deb has 25+ years in Fortune 150 high-tech firms, leading superstar business development and professional services teams. As an entrepreneur, she has accelerated advancement for women eager to achieve success.