Voice and leadership go hand in hand. Your particular voice and how you use it determines the kind of leader you are. This was true before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted our normal work routines, and it will remain true after normalcy returns.
Identifying my voice in business has been a career-long journey, filled with many challenges. Here is what I've learned about the fundamentals of finding your voice.
How to do it
Identifying my voice didn't happen overnight--it was built on three pillars: finding a mentor, learning from business relationships, and developing an overarching leadership principle.
Early in my career, it wasn't unusual for me to be the only woman executive in the room. Fortunately, while I was still in graduate school, I found an amazing mentor who taught me to have confidence in my own voice. I learned that, as a mom, if I could talk in the boardroom about what the kids had for breakfast or their struggles with homework the same way others discussed football scores, I could then turn around and be completely comfortable speaking as an executive.
Finding a mentor is vital to finding your voice. Mine showed me there was no "cookie-cutter" pattern I could replicate. I had to be self-assured and authentic.
Another smart move is to learn from every business relationship, even those you don't find quite right. I once had a boss who was a champion procrastinator and made everything a fire drill that just had to be done by the next morning without fail. What I took away from that was the firm decision never to create that kind of working environment, for people to associate my voice with calmness.
The final how-to for me was to develop an overarching leadership principle. My guiding belief is that I am a "servant leader"--I don't succeed unless my team succeeds first. I strive to always make them feel recognized, special, and appreciated.
Cheryl Bachelder, the former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, put it best in her book Dare to Serve: "The leader must have both the courage to take the people to a daring destination and the humility to selflessly serve others on the journey."
When to shout it
It's perfectly acceptable to use your voice to shout, but it must come from a place of humility and not self-promotion. Shouting to put yourself in the limelight and be recognized is where problems begin. On the other hand, when shouting comes from a place of promoting a cause that you're passionate about, that's bigger than yourself, it's the right thing to do.
I make my voice heard when someone on my team does something great. When the team makes its goals, I shout about it. Another use I make of my voice, which is especially important in these times, is to bring a personal connection--for example, I never miss the opportunity to wish someone a happy birthday or anniversary. You could view this as "shouting by whispering" to acknowledge the small things.
Overall, it's not about me but about recognizing those I am leading and helping them feel appreciated.
Where it can get you
Professionals entering the executive ranks strive to succeed. It's in their nature. But for too many, the only goal is the next title, and they will do anything they can to obtain it. This type of person is easily identified by their voice because those who are constantly checking off mental boxes to get to the next level can't help but come across as inauthentic. You must make the trophy secondary to what you're learning along the way.
You can't script all the places you will go. If you had asked me 10 years ago where I would be today, I would never have answered with my current position. Different experiences lead to different places, and I've made a point to identify important foundation blocks--things that have become part of my wheelhouse. I've always followed my passion rather than trying to get to the next level, and it shows through in my voice.
As these tips show, finding your own voice is as important for a business leader as a professional appearance and a strong work ethic. Where your true voice can take you is limitless.