Tips submitted by Brenda Van Camp, Founder and CEO of SharpAlice
There are thousands of blog posts out there with advice for women. However, one size does not fit all. Every woman faces her own leadership development challenges. Based on my experience of working with aspiring and existing female leaders, I’ve listed below 5 bits of advice that can help any woman who is willing to step up and lead.
1. Embrace your feminine traits
Leadership advice for women is often about things we should start doing – lean in, speak up, etc. Or it focuses on “the challenges” of overcoming existing biases in our male bosses and peers or other hurdles, such as lack of childcare support. However, there are also several female traits that give you an edge as a leader. Traits that are highly valuable and complementary to those of your male colleagues.
First, women tend to have a different observation style. Women’s attention operates like radar, picking up many environmental cues whilst listening or looking at or working on something. Men tend to be typically more laser-focused, not paying attention to or noticing any environmental cues. And there is true value in that. For example, one key benefit is that women are more apt to notice possible interdependencies, consequences or side effects of certain actions or decisions. And what they see or perceive, truly matters, because, in today’s global environment actions have consequences that can reverberate unexpectedly in far corners of the world.
Second, women tend to be good listeners, which is a reflection of both nurture & nature. Listening is probably one of the most overlooked but critical leadership skills. Culturally, we tend to associate leadership with extroversion. However, any astute leader knows there is far more to be gained by surrendering the floor than by dominating it. Kouzes and Posner, in their Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model, identified actively listening and asking questions (which requires listening to the answers) as key leadership behaviors.
2. Be mindful of your speaking habits
Women have a tendency to speak in a way that is more indirect and tentative. Whilst mitigated speech, as it is referred to, may be more effective in a meeting with mainly women, it undermines a woman’s influence and credibility when interacting with men. Given that the workplace will remain male-dominated for a little while longer, it would, therefore, be good for women to try and bridge this communication gap by addressing the four main culprits that hinder women's ability to be heard and understood by men:
Disclaimers, commonly used at the beginning of sentences, are used to downplay status and accomplishments while simultaneously attempting to soften the blow of criticism and minimize the potential for conflict. Examples include “I’m not sure about this; however …”; “I don’t know if this will work, but …”; “Maybe it’s me, but …”
Fillers are short utterances and words that we unconsciously add to sentences but that have no real meaning. Everyone uses them, yet women have been cited for using fillers more often than men. Fillers can include the following: “Um,” “You know,” “Well,” “Like,” and “Uh.”
Hedges are words that diminish the strength of a sentence and make the speaker sound unsure: “kind of,” “sort of,” “something like,” and “maybe.”
Question tags are short questions at the end of sentences that are used to confirm understanding or connect with another person’s thoughts or feelings. An overuse of question tags can lead to a misperception that the speaker lacks confidence, knowledge, and individual opinions. Examples include “I believe it’s the best way to do it. OK?” “Our presentation seemed to hit the mark, didn’t it?”
So next time that you are in a meeting, start by noticing whenever you use one of these language devices. Keep doing that until you are so aware of your speaking habits that you can proactively start to change them. The same applies also to your written communications, so start rereading those emails. Ask yourself: Are you undermining your influence and credibility by using any of these language devices?
3. Broaden who you network with
These days everyone is aware of the power of networking, but many women network mainly outside of work, and often mainly with other women. However, if you want to advance within an organization, then it is critical to also spend ample time in informal interactions with peers and colleagues across your organization. Socializing within your company, outside your own team, group or division helps you build knowledge, trust, cooperation and shared understanding with people across your company. These relationships enable you to call on others for support, whether that is for advice, to obtain information or to set up deals and partnerships.
4. Stop worrying about being liked by everyone
Many professional women worry about being liked. As a result, women tend to be more likely to shape shift their behavior, and even their views and opinions to please their “audience” of the moment. However, showing genuine interest in a person does not mean that you have to agree with everything they say. In fact, it will likely backfire as people will quickly pick up if it is insincere or forced. Instead let your responses be genuine reflections of your beliefs, values and opinions, as what is the use of starting any relationship, professional or personal, based on false premises? Moreover, being warm doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be using your critical thinking when learning about someone’s endeavors. In fact, your candor is much more valuable to them than just meeting yes-sayers, as it may lead them to new valuable insights and opportunities. Just meeting people who agree with everything you say is not just boring, it is useless, as it doesn’t help you progress.
5. Take control of your own leadership development
Through my work at SharpAlice I’ve come to realize that many women haven’t considered making a personal investment in their development. When their manager/HR rep says “no,” they give up. But who controls your career and advancement in this scenario? Should you leave your development up to the mercy or willingness of your employer?
I’m a big believer that companies should invest in their employees’ development, and I coach women often on how to ask for budget for workshops, courses or seminars to further their skills. However, I also counsel them to establish a personal and professional development budget so they can fund these trainings if their employers turn them down. Because, ultimately, YOU need to be the one in control of your career and professional advancement. Don’t ever leave that up to the powers that be in your company. So, take control of your development. Ideally, your company should invest in this on your behalf. However, if they don’t, then it’s on you to make sure you can, and do.