By: Kathryn Sollmann, 9Lives For Women Founder
You’re just starting out in your career—or working in a summer job or internship to boost your resume and give you an edge after graduation. Either way you’re now on your personal path to leadership—not lost at the bottom of the totem pole.
What does it mean to be a leader today? Are only certain women destined for leadership? I asked expert Stephanie Rogen, who is at the front lines of leadership development and passionate about helping young women of all personality types reach their full personal and business potential.
Q. Is the definition of leadership changing for women?
A. The definition of leadership is changing for everyone and the news is good for women. As our economy continues to globalize, as the world gets “flatter” and as technology continues to change how we work, leadership is evolving into a relational rather than a hierarchical activity. We’re transitioning from command and control to facilitative and collaborative leadership that works across teams, time zones, cultures and disciplines. What we think of as “soft skills” are becoming critical to leadership– and early career women, generally speaking, are comfortable and adept leading with these kinds of skills and abilities.
Q. Some women are natural leaders. They were the sports captains, the leads in the plays and the class presidents from a young age. Is leadership predetermined and part of your DNA–or something you can cultivate?
A. Yes and yes! We all have personalities that can predispose us for certain roles, but as leadership becomes less about position and more about influence, creativity and relationships women can step into leadership roles and develop their personal leadership styles in ways they may find surprising. The key is to leverage your assets in ways that advance your brand of leadership. Introverts, for example, can be tremendous leaders because of their ability to empathize, listen, reflect and think strategically. Similarly, “creative” types who may not espouse “management by numbers” are nonetheless critical in a world where we’re solving problems we’ve never seen before. It’s often the creative types who ask the questions and test assumptions in ways that traditional “business” leaders might not. Today we need innovators and leaders who can see and approach problems from a variety of perspectives.
Q. When we think of leaders, we tend to think of strong, powerful, assertive people who speak easily before crowds and generate a lot of attention and enthusiasm. Are there quieter, more reserved–but equally successful–leadership personas?
A. Charisma will always have value, but as I’ve said, quieter and more reserved leaders bring much–even more–to the table. Leaders who listen well, collaborate effectively, and seek diverse opinions and contributions often make better decisions overall. Furthermore, quiet leaders understand and embrace the value of introspection, reflection and deep learning. These leaders are deeply thoughtful and tend to see “the big picture” and patterns within systems that others do not recognize. The key for “quieter” women is to learn how to speak up when it’s important, to learn how to frame personal views persuasively, to cultivate a personal narrative that “brands” leadership in an authentic way, and to develop the confidence to act.
Q. There are still relatively few women at the leadership levels of most companies. Do you think not enough women are chosen–or too many women choose not to be leaders for family reasons?
A. Again, yes and yes. At most companies getting more women in leadership positions is a complex issue. There are societal and organizational/structural barriers to a woman’s rise to leadership, and there are individual and lifestyle factors that come into play as she makes career decisions. There is no single solution for women as a whole, but individual women can adopt a mindset that increases opportunities to lead in any setting. And every woman can approach her life in phases and stages—making it possible to return to formal positions of leadership in the work force by cultivating networks, and focusing on learning and development continuously. My view is that women should always practice and embrace leadership values–in family life and personal relationships, in civic engagement and volunteerism, and in professional endeavors. Leadership is a way of being and you can always choose leadership!
Q. Do young women today feel it’s possible–or too much of a stretch–to reach senior leadership levels?
A. Young women believe in their own potential and are as ambitious as ever. They enter the work force with high expectations and are as educated and prepared as their male peers. What they lack are models for leadership they can aspire to and sponsors who put them into the pipeline at critical points in their own development. This is particularly true in STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and math) and in professional services (like investment banking and law). The absence of models and the lack of support becomes critical when young women begin to integrate life choices like family and personal responsibilities into their decision making. This is why we see many young women “opting out” or down shifting their careers. They don’t see the road before them so they lower their expectations, sideline their ambitions, or make wholesale changes out of the corporate world.
Young women need a new vision for leadership and they need to be connected with women leaders who they can relate to with ease. But young women also need to learn how to identify leaders in positions of power or influence who can help them, and reach out strategically for sponsorship and mentorship. Finding those people is a skill set that all women leaders must develop with serious intention. With that support, leadership possibilities open up dramatically.
Q. There’s a lot of cynicism about today’s leaders. Other than the usual platitudes of, for example, honesty and integrity, what do you think are the leadership attributes young women should cultivate?
Women need to cultivate a few core competencies that will increase their sense of viability (self belief: I am a leader) and put them on track to leadership. Chief among these are empathy (and related facets of emotional intelligence), the ability to speak up and self advocate, political and strategic savvy (and political is not a bad word!) and the ability to solicit, integrate and learn from feedback. If women develop these skills in concert with the functional and technical knowledge they need to excel in their roles, they can lead–and they can help make decisions and shape policy in ways that are ethical, sustainable and effective. The research proves that companies with representative female leadership on their boards outperform (return on investment and return on equity) similar organizations with less diversity in governance and leadership.
Q. When you talk to young women today, who are the leaders they admire?
A. Young women today admire other women and men who have found ways to lead, exercise power and influence, and still honor their own deep personal values. Young women in particular admire leaders they can connect with and relate to: they want to be understood by these leaders and they want to understand them, too. Millennial and Gen Y women value the “greater good”: they value leadership that aspires to some social purpose or value, whether or not the organization is “for profit”. Women want leadership that looks different from traditional models: innovative, creative and collaborative leaders are high on their list.
- Don’t assume that you’re a follower. Anyone of any personality type can be a leader.
- Take inventory of your “soft skills”–e.g., communication, interpersonal, and motivational skills–and see how they can advance your leadership.
- Learn by example: take careful note of how leaders in your school, community or office inspire or turn off you and your peers.
This post was originally published on 9LivesforWomen. The post is based on an interview with Stephanie Rogen, an expert in leadership development and strategy. Stephanie is a consultant and executive coach to schools and not for profits (www.
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