In my corporate experience as a leader and a coach, I have been asked over the years, "How do women succeed in business, especially in a male-dominated company?"
It turns out that plenty of companies still have more men than women at the helm. A 2015 survey revealed that a meager five percent of CEOs are women in Fortune 500 companies. Among those companies, 17 percent of board members are women.
As low as these numbers are, the good news is that the statistics signal an ascendance of women into leadership roles. However, if women are going to continue succeeding as leaders, they must master important skills to reach--and exceed--their potential.
How can you become a stronger leader?
1. Understand and pay attention to how you are perceived at work.
Co-workers' perceptions can either lift or thwart a leader's upward momentum. As a woman in various leadership roles, I have witnessed women, including myself, awarded or promoted because they were perceived to be easy to work with. Others have been passed over for promotions because they were perceived to be inflexible, unapproachable, even intimidating. And these perceptions directly impact results: if people or teams don't want to work with you, their unwillingness can throw a wrench into your success as a leader.
The more you can address and direct the perceptions that are held about you, the easier it will be to pave the way to success. As with all things dealing with human emotions, the problem of perception is trickier than a simple binary of "nice mentor" versus the "tell-it-like-it-is boss." Being "nice" can be misconstrued as weak. Being bull-dozer tough can leave people feeling intimated and resentful. Women leaders must strike a balance between these extremes. Only then will you remain even-keeled, allowing others to benefit from the resulting wisdom and insight.
2. Find people at work or in life who will be completely honest with you. Use them as your sounding board to ensure you are seeing the big picture.
One day my son came home from school and told me that he was not being treated fairly by his teacher. I wrote a very strong email that I intended to send to his teacher, principal and guidance counselor. Before sending it out, I asked someone I trust to edit it for me. She sent me a text immediately: "You're not sending this email!" We then engaged in an honest conversation where she told me I was reacting like a fierce mama bear protecting her young. As a result, my message blamed his teacher instead of addressing the problem and working together to find a solution. By seeking honest feedback, I dramatically changed my course of action for the better.
3. If you don't have people in your life who will hold up a mirror of truth, find a coach to give you honest feedback.
Having a mentor or a coach at work is a valuable way to be groomed to reach the next in step in your career path. Ask if your organization has staff coaches or a mentor program. Or look outside of your organization for a coach to provide an honest, outside perspective. Look for an executive coach, leadership coach, or life coach--these are all synonymous. You can find coaches who have areas of expertise or passions that they bring to their coaching. Interview a few coaches to ensure you find the right fit.
4. Perfectionism hinders peace of mind and productivity.
Studies show that women have a hard time approaching something novel until they feel they can produce a perfect outcome. Conversely, men have a much easier time jumping in without fear or hesitation. Neurological studies further inform us that the phrase "fake it until we make it" has foundation in fact. Neural plasticity means that we are building the bridges of new neural pathways in our brain as we move through the motions. Whether we know exactly how to achieve the outcome, we are building a road map as we learn and do something new. Accept a project that might be beyond your qualifications and your comfort zone. Ask for help--and tell yourself that you have the confidence needed to accomplish the task. "Fake it 'til you make."
As women leaders in business, we are accountable for how we think and act. People form perceptions of us based on those actions. Go forth without the need to be "perfect" (easier said than done, but one day at a time) and ask for help when you need it. Find your trusted friends or co-workers. Make a pact that you will provide each other honest feedback. Get a coach to be your mirror of truth if you don't have a trusted co-worker. Project that powerful, graceful leader within you.
Kirsten Blakemore Edwards, MA CPCC, is a Consultant for Partners in Leadership, helping companies create accountable cultures, while improving employee engagement and effective communication. She is an executive coach and facilitator.