Professional Development

How Women Can Maximize Their Leadership Skills

Written by Peter Jones

There’s a long way to go before we can say that we have gender equality in the workforce. That ideal world would include total guaranteed pay equity, family leave, and a host of other less tangible things on the equality laundry list—most which would involve women getting the respect they deserve, not to mention recognition for their performance and the freedom to go about their workdays without having to deflect sexism or misogyny.

Maybe you work in an environment that feels well ahead of the curve. If so, that’s awesome. But perhaps you don’t, and you are striving to understand how you can have the kind of career you want despite the minefield of obstacles that seem to stand in your path. Either way, let’s face it. Women can—and often are—treated differently in the workplace.

Have you ever been called “honey” or “doll” by a client or a superior? Have you ever been the only person asked to fetch coffee in a meeting of mostly men? Have you been passed over for promotions in favor of male colleagues who haven’t been working there as long as you have and, at least as far as you can tell, haven’t matched your performance or achievements? These are but a few of the many ways in which women are still being left behind professionally.

According to the latest accounting by Catalyst, women currently hold only 5.8% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. That’s a pretty measly slice of the pie. How, you might be wondering, can those odds be changed? There’s a lot of chatter (online and in bestselling books and inspirational speeches) about what women need to do to get to the top. “Leaning in” is just one strategy. Dressing or acting less feminine is another popular one—that means upping your aggression, going in for the kill, learning to be a mercenary in a cutthroat business world. But if these strategies feel a little severe to you, or abrasive, or you just can’t imagine these tactics working for you, there are other ways.

Embrace Your Natural Leadership Abilities

Keep in mind, women have a wealth of natural leadership skills—and have for generations. Think about the hardworking, iron-willed and purposeful women in your family. Think about how your family has been held together and shepherded through tough times over the years. Chances are a woman is responsible for some or most of that. Think for a second about the unsung skills of your foremothers. Just because they aren’t recognized as they should be doesn’t mean their skills aren’t praiseworthy—and aren’t just the kind of leadership qualities you might innately possess.

Things like emotional intelligence, instinct, crisis management, multitasking, troubleshooting, and opportunity managing. Women have (mostly) run the domestic show for a long time, and so effectively and seamlessly that nobody thinks to notice their labors, or their wealth of skills—or to notice how those skills might so easily translate into assets in the corporate world.

Every woman is different. And gender differences don’t always fall along cookie-cutter lines. There are plenty of women who wouldn’t identify with all or any of the above traits, and plenty of men who would. But, generally speaking, most women do tend to be more collaborative and to take a slightly different tack in decision-making and leadership matters.

Just because there are these marked and observable differences in most cases, it is also true that there aren’t any real substantive differences in what it takes to be a good leader that would disqualify a woman or more naturally recommend a man. Women are just as passionate, just as entrepreneurial, just as driven, just as strategic, and every bit as capable. Humans are humans, after all.

According to a Gallup poll in 2015, employees with female managers were found to be more engaged in their work than those with male managers. Despite this—and despite the fact that women are 51% of the population, only 33% of employees in the U.S. have female bosses or supervisors. At the 2013 World Economic Forum, founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab said that “A world where women make up less than 20% of the global decision-makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential…” He was (and still is) right. The more diversity of decision-makers in the workplace and the world, the better off the world and the workplace will be.

Develop Key Skills

Start by leveraging the authentic qualities you started out with, rather than downplaying those traits in favor of more stereotypically masculine ones. Embrace your empathy and intuition. They can be invaluable tools for innovation and strategic marketing. Lead by example. “Go high” when everybody else is going low (thanks, Michelle Obama!). Use your problem-solving skills rather than studying from some male-written business manual. Trust your own ideas. Speak when you feel you should, but not just for the sake of speaking. Stay quiet and listen when you feel that’s most appropriate—you’ll never know what you might learn or how your patience might be rewarded when you finally do interject and lobby for your ideas.

Cultivate Confidence

This may be a tough one, but it’s necessary. Ever met a male CEO or industry leader without it? Start by faking it; eventually you’ll make it. And remember, you won’t get where you want to go by trying to please everyone you come across. If you’ve done your homework and you know your industry and your job inside and out, then speak up; join the fray. Trust yourself. You know what you’re talking about. Speak up and share it. Don’t be afraid to show the world that you are well aware of your own merits and qualifications and that you feel quite strongly when you’ve got the right idea.

Be an Actor, Not a Reactor

Keep an eye out for opportunities to make a real impact and create a reputation for being a real contributor to projects and causes that matter. But also try to balance that a bit. Work-life balance is important. You can’t rise to the top if you’re too stressed and exhausted to support yourself on the way up. Your contributions will be most valuable when they’re backed up by good stores of sleep and health and verve.

Work to Build a Matriarchy from Within

Help other women. Pull your sisters up to the next promontory as you reach it. Mentor women and girls in your field. But also keep in mind that (most) men aren’t adversaries. Reach out for other, very different perspectives and advice. Seek out both male and female mentors and learn to navigate a path that feels right to you between their unique points of view. Learn to see what all good leaders have in common, regardless of their gender. (Hint: this will be a long list.)

Above All: Listen for Your Own Voice

Seek out the stories of women who have made it to those coveted top rungs. Many top women leaders will say that there are a few qualities most crucial to the kind of success in leadership that you crave. Things like being proactive, constantly striving to learn new things and move your business (and indeed your industry) forward. Being able to negotiate confidently, rather than settle quietly. Being flexible, and able to adapt to any situation or crisis you may confront, open enough to think outside the box for a solution. But also keeping your eyes open, using your listening skills and powers of observation. Staying focused, despite all of the noise. Being authentic, true to yourself, but never keeping silent. Being outspoken, even if that means learning to get comfortable not being universally liked.

Remember, you are your best (and sometimes only) advocate. Only you can be truly confident in your capabilities. It’s up to you to convince everyone else. Toot your own horn and the horns of the women you work with. No one will do it for you. Strike that power pose and unleash your creative forces. Pitch your ideas. Be audacious. Soon, you’ll be respected, even if not universally everyone’s best pal or favorite colleague. Respect, above all else, is key.

In an ideal world, the burden wouldn’t fall so squarely on women to prove their mettle and earn the respect their male colleagues seem to start with at the bottom rung. But the world won’t always be so lopsided. You could be one of tomorrow’s leaders, a captain of industry who commands respect and changes lives. You could help shape a better, brighter world—not just for women in the workplace, but for all of us. So go ahead and take your seat at the conference table. And don’t be afraid to stand up and grab the mic.

About the author

Peter Jones