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My Advice for Aspiring Female Leaders

Leadership

One of the most talked-about business books of this year was Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, which gave advice to women who want to be leaders in business. My Advice for Aspiring Female Leaders image 4881592197 ace7475804 b700x300 300x198Sandberg delivered a lot of recommendations and guidance on how women should behave, and what they should do.

Among other things, she urges women to:

  • “Sit at the table”
  • Seek challenges
  • Take risks
  • Pursue their goals with gusto
  • Set boundaries
  • Abandon the myth of “having it all.”

I speak often to groups of young women leaders, and typically, the question on their minds follows Sandberg’s formula: “What do I need to do to become a leader?”

My goal is always to switch their focus from what they must do to what they must be.

In her book, Sandberg acknowledges her daily struggles with the hard decisions she needs to make. Everyone faces these struggles. The choices we make are easier if we are self-aware; when we know who we want to be, it becomes easier to decide what to do.

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As I think about my own teen daughter and her wonderful friends, and all of the other young women whose lives I am blessed to be a part of, my wish for them is that they develop their own “To Be” list, and learn how to let that guide them.

Here is the list that I use to guide myself:

Be a learner

Being a lifelong learner ensures your relevance. You can learn from experience, others, and even yourself. Each day presents the opportunity for growth if you are eager to learn. Eric Hoffer said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Don’t be beautifully equipped for irrelevance— keep learning.

Be a question asker

When was the last time you had a question, but you didn’t ask it? I have been teaching and writing about the importance of asking great questions for a long time. Great questions are the best way to have a meaningful conversation, the best way to rope in a mentor, and the best way to look like a star performer. Make it a priority to listen to people asking great questions. Notice when others around you are speaking, instead of constantly preparing your next answer. Be in charge of the questions you ask and keep a list of the best questions you hear. Create a question toolbox you use and can apply to every conversation and interaction you have. Hillary Clinton believes that “women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.” Our reluctance to ask questions is a meaningful reason this is true.

“Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.”

Be courageous

We don’t serve the rest of the world, or ourselves, by playing small. Humanity’s misfortune is when we don’t realize the very gifts we have, or the impact we have the opportunity to make. It is imperative that you own and honor your genius. Make a contribution that matters. In a 1973 interview, Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, said, “I don’t flinch at power the way I used to. If power is there to be used, it is used whether you abdicate it or whether you use it. You have to remember than you can do as much damage by abdicating it as by using it in the wisest way you know.”

Humanity’s misfortune is when we don’t realize the very gifts we have

Be kind

We lead our lives in the company of others, and that is where we leave our legacy. It’s the quality of our relationships that most determine whether our legacy will be momentary, or long lasting. Don’t ever pass up a chance to let others know they matter to you. Your simple acknowledgement of their presence or thoughts can go a long way. Never underestimate the value of an interaction, whether it is big or small. Advocating both for your own self and others builds community and promotes leadership.

It’s the quality of our relationships that most determine whether our legacy will be momentary

Be patient and persistent

Most things of lasting value take time and discipline to achieve. Know that things worth doing seldom come easy. There will be good days and bad days. The good times remind you of what you have worked through, and give you great reflection on the leader and woman you are becoming. The bad times tell you that you are pushing yourself, and that you are not afraid to learn by trial and error. Margaret Thatcher once said, “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.”

Don’t ever pass up a chance to let others know they matter to you

Be passionate

Passion is not only a differentiator; it is a difference maker. Passion makes the impossible possible. That’s what’s makes a passionate leader effective. She conceives of possibilities and opportunities for progress, while others often see only roadblocks. Meg Whitman, President and CEO of Hewlett-Packard and former eBay CEO, who faced the challenge of being a female leader in the workplace and didn’t let that stop her from pursuing her career goals. In her leadership film series on Makers, she says, “There are lots of things I can change, but my gender is not one of them. I have to lead according to my personality, according to what I think is necessary under any set of circumstances.” Don’t let societal limitations inhibit your passion for your career or your potential.

Passion is not only a differentiator; it is a difference maker.

Be hopeful

Hope is something that takes on a life of its own. As a leader, your ability to be hopeful and dispense hope is crucial to helping those you lead to thrive in face of difficulty. Bring the hope of something great to come. Pepsi Chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi often states one of her life mantras: “If there is a glass ceiling, remember it is made of glass, and it can be easily broken. All you have to do is try.” Remember to have hope; not everything is as difficult as it may seem upon first appearance.

As a leader, your ability to be hopeful and dispense hope is crucial

Be humble

One of the world’s most admired leaders is Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. His annual letters to stockholders are widely read. They highlight a litany of successes, but Buffett also readily acknowledges his failures. For example, his 2007 letter included a section titled, “The Good, the Bad and the Gruesome,” with one part referred to as “confession time,” in which Buffett acknowledges mistakes that cost his investors billions of dollars. The section concludes with Buffett’s prediction that he’ll “make more mistakes in the future–you can bet on that.” Don’t be afraid to be humble, when appropriate.

Be empathetic

One of my favorite CEOs tells a story of a rare time when he failed to be empathetic. One morning, a female engineer showed up late and groggy for a group meeting. He loudly called her out, sending her crying from the room. Her manager politely explained that on the previous day, the engineer had diagnosed a catastrophic problem that interrupted operations. She worked until 6:30 a.m. to fix it, went home, showered and returned for the meeting, ten minutes late. An empathetic leader would not have been so eager to make an example of someone that she would have missed the signals this engineer was surely giving off. Take the time to observe, to listen, and to understand before acting.

Leadership is a choice, and the choice is ours to help other women

Would you follow leaders with these traits and qualities? What can we add or do to help nurture those who seek or are called to serve? Think about your “To Be” list today. Make it a new goal when you are faced with a challenge to consult this list, and be the leader that you imagine yourself to be. Set the example for generations of women to come, for by being a leader you are creating leaders.

Leadership is a choice, and the choice is ours to help other women, young and old, make it as well: “to be” or “not to be.” That is the question for all young women who aspire to be leaders. Ask someone today; that is your first great question.

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