10 Secrets for Women Leaders to Increase Visibility and Credibility

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Being a leader must be one of the most rewarding careers you can ever do.  Not only is the work interesting and challenging, but you are impacting the direction of many people and the direction of your company.  You are able to see that you are making a difference in something very big.

In this report, you will learn key areas for women leaders to be aware of in order to achieve success inside organizations.  This condensed report provides general trends identified from research of women and men in the workplace.  As with any general trend, there are exceptions.  You may not align with some of the information provide, and you are invited to read with a curious mind to see what new ideas you might explore in your own development process.

Secret #1 — Build networks internally and externally

This is important for both men and women. 

This is one area that is a derailer for many mid-level management individuals who don’t take this seriously.  It is important to build networks internally to develop allies and externally to increase your value to the company.  You may think you don’t have time, but it can actually save you time when you need to call on that ally for support on a big project with a tight deadline.  The higher up you go in an organization, the more important it is for you to have strong networks.  At higher levels, the emphasis of work is done more through people and your ability to effectively influence and communicate with others. 

People with large networks can easily access and receive timely, useful information to help them accomplish their goals.  It is best to identify individuals where there is a mutually beneficial relationship based on common goals and interests.  Who are two or three people you need to develop a stronger relationship with?

Secret #2 — Sell yourself effectively, not aggressively

One of the things I see over and over again with women is how they undervalue their achievements and they believe that their good works will be obvious.  Or, they think: “this is easy and anyone with half a brain could do this.”   Many women do not see their key productive strengths and talents.  Women need to learn how to first see their strengths and second effectively sell themselves and how their specific accomplishments connect to the business drivers. 

Identify two or three of your key accomplishments.  What strengths and skills can you identify from these accomplishments?  See the full report for tips on how to identify your strengths and effectively sell yourself.

Secret #3 — Select a mentor within your company

This is a very important one!  Don’t wait on the company to institute a program or if there is one and you’re not part of it, then seek out individuals you value and begin to build a relationship.  This may be more critical for a woman’s success than it is for her male colleagues.  In a study of individuals who made it into the senior ranks of organizations, the authors of Breaking the Glass Ceiling found that only 38% of successful men had mentors, but all of the women executives had them.

A mentor can give you advice on what you need to do next in your career to move forward, how to get visibility and recognition, and how to play the game of your particular organization. You can do this informally without necessarily asking the person to be your mentor.  A mentor can encourage you to take more risks and be an advocate for you in those closed door meetings at the executive level.  Who is someone you respect and might be available as an informal mentor for you?  When and how will you approach this person?

Secret #4 — Ask for the stretch assignments

Women must often explicitly signal their interest and willingness to take on unusual or challenging assignments.  Otherwise, managers may assume they are not interested.  You can use the work you’ve done in Secret #2 to identify your key strengths and pitch your ‘qualifications’ or readiness to take on more challenging assignments. Women can get caught in a double bind of being seen as too ambitious.  So, you wouldn’t necessarily want to tell your boss you want her job.  But, it would be generally acceptable to voice your interest in taking on more responsibility and demonstrating your ability to do so.

You could volunteer for visible projects that require you to stretch and accomplish tasks you haven’t had the opportunity to do in the past.  Other ideas include: volunteer to speak on a program or at a conference, volunteer for a cross-departmental committee, go to company social events and talk with people you don’t know.  What action will you take in this area?

Secret #5 — Develop strong communication skills and mastery of your emotions

Developing strong communication skills, mastery of your emotions, and the ability to effectively handle conflict is another very important area for success.  Once you reach management level, your ability to effectively influence and relate to others is more important than your technical skills. 

There has been enough research out now on the importance of Emotional Intelligence (EI), which is a current term for a person’s ability to manage their emotions and relate effectively to others.  In a 1990 study (by Hunter et al), 200 companies and organizations were examined.  It was found that top performers were 127% more productive than average performers.  The competency research indicated that about one-third of the difference was due to technical and cognitive (IQ) ability, while two-thirds was due to competence in the area of EI.  In top leadership, 4/5th of the difference was attributed to EI competence.  All this is to say that having EI competence is one of the most important determinants of your success, and especially so if you are in leadership.

Secret #6 –Learn the rules of the game of business and how to play for success

Business is still played by the rules of team sports.  The games we play as girls and boys influence how we ‘play’ at work.  Organizations are still strongly influenced by the male culture.  So, in order for women to be effective in this arena, they will need to visibly see the rules of the game and understand how to maneuver within that framework. 

Growing up, girls learn dependence and boys learn independence.  Competition is one of the key principles in the game of business where winning is all important.  Even if you grew up playing with boys, those experiences are minor in comparison to the influence of social norms.  Growing up, girls learn how to be competent interpersonally and develop and sustain relationships.  Boys, on the other hand, learn how to subordinate relationships to aggressiveness, competition, and winning.

Research shows that behaving like a man will backfire.  Women have a narrower band of acceptable behavior.  The one important piece to remember is that for most men, business is a game.  If you understand that it’s not personal, you will be able to choose your strategies and approaches wisely to your success.

Secret #7 — Know what it takes to successfully transition each leadership passage

In the book, The Leadership Pipeline, by Charam, Drotter & Noel, the authors identify six passages which require a different focus and attention to navigate successfully through the passage.  The six passages are 1) from Manage Self to Manage Others, 2) Manage Managers, 3) Functional Manager, 4) Business Manager, 5) Group Manager, 6) Enterprise Manager (CEO).  Not only is understanding this critical for your success in progressing upward, but it is vital for you to understand how to focus the development for those under your span of control.  The skills, time application, and work values are different for each passage and there are signs of possible derailment at each turn. For example, passage number 4 from Functional Manager to Business Manager requires an ability to deliver inspired communication, assemble a strong team, grasp how the company makes money, and develop strong leadership at multiple below you.

Secret #8 — Know and manage your image

You will want to manage how you are perceived.  Some questions to ask yourself are: How do people perceive you in your organization?  What kind of reputation have you established?  What image are you portraying through your dress? 

As a leader it is more important to be respected than liked.  You are called upon to make tough decisions that everyone will not necessarily like.  This is another difference in the male and female culture that can create tension.  As young girls we are taught to get along and being liked is important. 

A word about business attire.  Make sure your business attire is tasteful but does not draw more attention to your sexuality, such as tight skirts, sweaters, low cut blouses, or frilly clothing.  The way you dress determines the overall message you send.  If your makeup, hairstyle, or clothing stands out, then what you are saying in an important conversation will be secondary. The general rule of thumb to follow is to dress for the job you want, not the job you have.  Notice what successful women at the top of your organization are wearing and adapt to that style.  You can still have your own style, just remember the unspoken dress code is akin to the team uniform and is another ‘test’ of how well you fit into the team.

Secret #9 — Hire an experienced coach

Hire a coach who’s familiar with 360 tools and other personality and work style assessments so you get the vital objective feedback and how to use it into your development plan.

If you have never worked with a professional coach, you might consider doing a little research and contacting some experienced coaches for a sample coaching session.  Many coaches offer a free 45-minute coaching session so you get to know them and what to expect in the coaching process with them.  Working with an experienced coach can expedite your development and save you a lot of hard lessons.   

Secret #10 Know your long-term goals, maintain work/life balance, and support other women

Be clear about your long-term goals and how you will maintain the work/life balance that’s right for you.  If your goal is to reach the upper executive levels, then find out what commitment it will take, how it will impact your personal life, and what support systems you will need to put in place.  There are many ways to be in leadership and have a powerful impact.  You may decide that you enjoy being at a mid-level management position with the ability to influence many people and groups within the organization.  Or, if you are better suited to be a senior level individual contributor such as VP of Investor Relations, then go for that. 

It’s important for your own happiness and satisfaction in life that you identify your key productive skills, your long-term goals, and your personal quality of life to determine the best career path for you.

In a Catalyst study with interviews of executive women, women pointed out that you cannot have it all.  You have to decide the priorities for your life and make choices.  If you are married, it is important to have a supportive spouse.  Many women pay for hired help to support childcare, home maintenance, etc.  Women are so skilled at multi-tasking and handling many things for themselves and others in their lives that they often neglect to take care of themselves.  You will need to be proactive in doing things to take care of yourself.

Support other women who are coming up through the ranks to create networks of collective support for all women.  This is key to shifting the culture to be more in balance between masculine and feminine ways of approaching business.

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