Guest blogger Melissa Greenwell is the author of MONEY ON THE TABLE: How to Increase Profits Through Gender-Balanced Leadership (Greenleaf Book Group, January 2017). She is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of national retailer The Finish Line, Inc. You can learn more at www.melissa-greenwell.com.
Only 23 Fortune 500 companies are led by women, only 19 percent of public board seats are held by women, and only 15 percent of senior leadership roles are held by women. Although there is much that companies can do to change this, there are also fundamental steps women themselves must take.
Based on my own experience, I have come to understand the behaviors that permit both male and female leaders to succeed. There is no question that women must be their authentic selves. The trick is to deliver their uniqueness in the most effective way possible. Here are five rules that will help women who want to move up the corporate ladder:
1. Speak first. Yes, first, not last. It doesn’t matter if your idea is not fully baked, with all of the possible pitfalls identified. If you wait until everyone else’s ideas are heard, while you refine yours or, worse, come up with a reason why yours is not a good idea, one of two things will happen:
*You will never be heard, because you’ll never get the chance to speak, and the conversation will move on.
*You will never be heard because someone else said it first.
If you have trouble getting the attention of the room when you need it, there are a few techniques you can try. It starts with body language. Be confident. Don’t slump. Lean forward on the table. Or stand up. Move to the front of the room if necessary. Speak quickly and with energy. Turn up the volume.
2. Choose a mentor. Don’t ask for a mentor, pick one. Choose someone who is really good at something you want to be good at. You may have a tendency to try and find a female mentor—one who has “made it.” Not so fast. Remember that the majority of senior leadership positions are still held by men. They have the power to change that situation, and there are things you can learn from them. These are smart people who have worked hard to get where they are. You also need professional relationships with them so that you are memorable when there are future opportunities for them to sponsor or promote you.
You should also pick a female role model. This doesn’t have to be someone you know personally. Look for a woman you admire, not only for how she can manage a room, but also for the qualities that enable her to do that effectively. What does she stand for? What are her spoken or unspoken values? How does she carry herself? Does she deliver messages with confidence and conviction? Does she really resonate with you when you watch and listen to her? Role models can help give you confidence. Pick one whose style you can relate to and want to emulate.
3. Stop apologizing. Stop qualifying your statements. Every time you preface your thought with an apology or a qualifier, you take power away from yourself and give it to the men in the room (because there are likely more men in the room). Stop it! You don’t really believe it when you say you’re not sure if it’s a good idea, right?
Also, do not apologize for anything you’ve said if someone disagrees with you. Simply acknowledge the comment and thank them for their point of view.
4. Stay in control. Many of us have experienced at least some degree of anger and frustration in the workplace. Men and women react differently. Men raise their voices and swear more commonly when they get angry in the workplace. Women often cry when they are angry. You can do that if you want, but you won’t be seen as an effective leader. You will be seen as emotional. There is a double standard when it comes to displaying emotion in the workplace.
Conversely, don’t be quick to act the peacemaker. Women have a natural reflex to smooth a situation over and make a conflict go way. It’s not your job to make a disagreement disappear. If you want to diffuse an issue, ask questions. Stay engaged, stay focused, and don’t become defensive. If there’s no way to keep going, then suggest a break and schedule a time to reconvene. Resist the tendency to avoid returning to the discussion. Push past that fear and get back to it.
5. Ask for what you want. Take a look around at the successful men in your organization. How many examples do you see of men who have succeeded because they raised their hand for an opportunity? Perhaps you don’t think they should have gotten it. Well, that doesn’t matter. They are there.
As a senior female executive, I’ve seen it a million times. Men stepped forward for a role they were not ready for. More than half of the time they landed the job simply because they asked. Were they being selfish? Sure. Is that wrong? Think carefully before you answer that.
The truth is women need to be selfish when it comes to opportunities. You don’t have to wait until something is offered to you in order to obtain it. You should be thinking about what you want to do next and making sure that people in control of those decisions are aware of your aims. Remind them frequently. Ask for the opportunity well before you think you are ready. If you don’t, someone else will, and chances are good that they’re not ready either.