There I was, hand stretching high into the air with a gesture that screamed, “Pick me! PICK ME!”  Was this third grade? No.  I was a CEO in my 20s attending a Harvard Business School program.  I was the youngest in the room by 20 years and one of three women.  

After that first day, a gentleman approached and asked me to grab some coffee. He was kind, funny and eventually got to his point. “Why not let some other people share their experiences?” he asked. 

I would love to say that I was grateful for his mentorship. But truthfully, I was mortified. I ended up learning a good deal that week, particularly about my own need to look smart.

When reflecting back on this incident, I think about the three other women in the room. Why didn’t they intervene? They never made eye contact, let alone approach me. Instead of taking action to help me, they created distance.

To be clear, I understand and respect why those women looked away. I too worry about how other women’s actions will reflect on me.  With so few of us at the table, the actions of one woman can be over-representative and reinforce ugly stereotypes.

So the question isn’t whether or not we take action. We all take action--even in our silence. The question is whether or not we step in and help, even when our approach may be uncomfortable or even embarrassing. 

And yet, if we want more successful women leaders, we need to step up to the challenge. And it is in that spirit that I have pulled together five things you can do today to help women succeed:

  1. Step forward. If you are embarrassed by a co-worker’s action, arrange a private time to talk. In all likelihood, she’s not clueless (like I was) about the misstep, and would welcome your support.
  2. Ask questions.  No one wants to be lectured.  Ask simple, open-ended questions: “How do you feel after yesterday’s presentation?” or, “What came up fr you when you received the feedback?”
  3. Listen. Once you ask a question, make room for the response. Staying silent is hard for me. I’ve found it helpful to silently repeat the mantra, “I have no idea what she is going to say next.” It keeps me curious and out of my head.
  4. Be kind. It’s easy to provoke shame accidentally. Use personal stories about your own mistakes to show your own humanness.  “I remember this one time at my first board meeting, oh my…”
  5. No advice, unless she literally begs you for it. I realize that this may sound contradictory, but any advice you are willing to share is for you, not the recipient. Your role is to show up and be supportive, not to dispense wisdom.

A leader is simply someone who is willing to take the first step. By having a willingness to step forward into the discomfort and make ourselves available to listen, we become leaders. 

These actions may help your colleague as well--raising her up--but that is secondary. These steps are for you, first and foremost.