The 113th Congress is a beacon of hope for women like me who have been waiting for stronger representation in government for years now. The 2012 election set the record for the number of women to hold seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. A total of 98 women will take the oath of office this year, proving the power of the women’s vote to drive politics and governance for our future. In addition to electing a large number of incumbents, a record number of newcomers will join the leadership ranks this year (20 Democrats and 4 Republicans), making 2013 the largest class of female newcomers since 1992.
In my work with financial institutions across the country, I am seeing a similar trend. As many excellent CEO’s prepare to retire in the next few years, more and more of these prominent men are naming women as their successors. In the next decade I predict we will see a wave of talented, dynamic women take the helm of our community banks and credit unions. In fact, I am so invigorated by this trend that I have started a new custom program for women transitioning to the CEO position. It’s a 3-day intensive, including onsite introductions to a “who’s who” of innovative, ground-breaking female professionals, followed by approximately 18 months of remote coaching. The women I am working with in this program are remarkable – to say the least. And frankly, their passion, ideas, and commitment to the future are a breath of fresh air for me after years of seeing the “same old story” come out of Boards and management teams across the country.
Still, I see some possible roadblocks in the way of this bright future – little mistakes and missteps that these women I am rooting for might find difficult to avoid. So, to kick this year off, I offer the following list of “most common mistakes” and “best pieces of advice” from my experience with some of the most promising women in the nation. I hope you enjoy!
- Underestimating your influence. There are many studies to show that not only are those in leadership positions highly influential, but there is significant power in “weak influencers” – those mid-level managers and front line employees who create strong and lasting relationships and know how to call on those relationships when it counts. I see women fostering these important relationships all the time, but underestimating the power they wield.
- Refusing Mentorship. A male CEO I work with that is widely regarded in his industry and often interviewed in trade magazines and business news once said to me, “The best leaders have coaches.” He has a coach, and he is not afraid to talk about it openly. I have seen him say in Board meetings, “That is a good point, I’ll make a note to talk it over with my coach next week and get back to you.” He is unashamed about it. What he understands is that no matter how high you go in your career and no matter how experienced and recognized you are – you always need an objective “sounding board” for your ideas, plans and challenges. I see women managers and executives being offered coaching opportunities by their organizations and they more often than not turn it down. They say something like, “I don’t need coaching.” Or, “Is this some sort of comment on my performance?” they get defensive instead of jumping at the chance for professional development and improvement. This is a big mistake.
- Managing Like a Mama Bear. A lot of women I work with are parents. And I believe that women should never underestimate what parenting can teach you about managing people – lots of things are the same, and women tend to really excel in this area. But be careful about becoming “parental” in your management style. It’s not actually your job to protect, guard, or defend your people. It is your job to support, challenge and nurture them. I see women who jump to defend their people at all costs, becoming known as a “dragon lady” protecting her territory at the expense of all reason. It’s not only strategic to put your organization before the people who work for you; it’s also the right thing to do. Protecting your employees all the time means that you in effect “steal their thunder” when it comes to fighting their own fights, testing their courage, and developing into much stronger leaders in their own right. We must experience struggle and hardship to grow and succeed. Don’t take that opportunity away from your people by being a mama bear.
- Believing Others Know More Than You. I see women defer to superiors or more experienced peers for much too long in their careers. Once you have achieved that seat at the table, make the assumption that you belong there. Men in business are experts at the game of bullshit. They have a knack for convincing anyone and everyone that they are right – even when they are dead wrong. Trust yourself. Speak up. Believe that what you have to say matters and that people should listen to you.
- Underestimating the Power of the Good ol Boys Club. In a down economy this club takes a heightened role – so it can be harder than ever for women to catch a break. When it comes to finding a good job, getting that promotion or being recognized for your hard work – remember that the Good ol Boys network and mentality is still alive and well.
- Overestimating the Power of the Good ol Boys Club. Don’t give up your sense of agency to a feeling of powerlessness – there is a lot we can do to get around this reality and find allies. Keep building your network, ask for help and mentorship, think about who might be able to get you into the back door when your resume or work won’t open the front door, and don’t push aside or ignore the men in your network who can help you gain access to this all important culture of power.
- Not Being Entrepreneurial. Women are more resistant than men to start small businesses. We haven’t been in in the game as long and we don’t have as much confidence. But women bring a lot of advantages to the business arena:
- We are creating the lives we want to live both personally and professionally, developing businesses that honor the connection between home and work life. This is a big change and one that is attractive to both men and women of the next generation.
- We are improving the lives of customers through the nature of the business, blending profits with social responsibility – in this way women can change the nature of business for the better.
While I see the mistakes I’ve listed getting in the way of progress for some women, I have also seen tremendous optimism, courage, and success in many of the women I work with. Here are just a few of the things that I see really working for women professionals right now:
- Be Unconventional. When we live a life circumscribed by the expectations of others we lead a limited life. The greatest gift that you can give yourself is the permission to be different. Let go of your need to have everyone you love or care about understand your life choices. If you are truly going to fulfill your highest potential in your life and work, you will have to push boundaries, challenge notions of “acceptable behavior”, make mistakes and redefine the very notion of success as we know it. Meeting the expectations of those around you might feel nice, but it will also mean falling far short of your greatest capabilities and passion.
- Be an Ally for Other Women. As we see more women stepping into leadership roles from the U.S. Congress to CEO positions to professional sports, it is more critical than ever that women embrace the role of “ally” for the next generation. We will need to use those positions of power to hire more women – vendors, strategists, engineers, consultants, associates, you name it. And many of these women will be hard to find, as there are not many of them out there to choose from in these competitive and male-dominated fields. You will have to be persistent in your search and (dare I say it?) biased in your effort to recruit them. This focus will likely be a cultural shift for the company you lead – you will have to be willing to be first. But these are the ways that women CEOs can make their mark and really differentiate themselves – leaving a memorable and honorable legacy from their leadership.
- Triple the Number of Questions You Are Asking. Whether you are a new employee at the bottom of the organizational chart or the CEO, I guarantee that you are not asking enough questions. In fact, the higher we progress in our careers, the less we seem to ask. But asking questions is the number one way that you can obtain information – especially negative information. And we need negative information. The better you are at encouraging negative information to flow upward the better you will be at troubleshooting customer and employee problems, heading key complaints off at the pass, and preempting destructive conflict in your organization.
- Recruit Men to Your Cause. Inequality is not a “women’s issue”, it is a community issue. There are a lot of men who care about the success of women – fathers, husbands, brothers, bosses and associates. There are many men who will partner with you openly and engage in these professional discussions if only you would invite them. Find them and make friends.
- Be Future-Oriented. Whether you are a “glass half empty” or a “glass half full” kind of personality the key to success is a belief in agency – in your power to change the future and your role in it. Whether an optimist or a pessimist, a “Pollyanna” or a “Realist” – the most successful people in world are those that operate under the assumption of “High Agency”. Believe in your ability to influence others, change your situation, and improve the future.
- Learn to Speak Well in Public. Get training for public speaking. Master it. It will never fail you.
- Get Coaching. Everyone needs a coach. Even when we are seasoned in our careers we need someone outside of our business arena we can bounce ideas off and test run pitches for – or even just someone to remind us that we aren’t crazy or alone!
Evolutionary Women are minimizing these mistakes and living this advice. They are producing detailed plans for ongoing professional development no matter what level they are at in their career success. Evolutionary women have defined their personal leadership style and adhere to their philosophy and values when communicating and executing on their work. They know what they want to achieve in the next 12 months and they are willing to flex and adapt to new strategies and approaches for getting it done. Join me and these dynamic women in 2013 – let’s make this a year to remember!