Women Who Lead: A Guide to Making It to the Top

Thursday Oct 29th 2015 by Pam Baker
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This no-bull guide offers serious leadership tips and resources that will actually help you rise to the top of your profession.

There's no shortage of great leadership resources to help fuel your rise to the very top of your industry. It's just difficult to sort the grains of wheat from the endless piles of chaff. Like many business women, your current workload barely leaves you time to breathe much less make a change that could help you get ahead. But still you try.

The advice you typically hear is "work more, work harder." You're willing to do that—just as soon as someone invents a way to add more hours to the day. Worry not, here's a guide that will really help you sprint to the top.

Moving Beyond a Business Mentor

Mentors are great. They can teach you the ropes in the biz, new skills, and shortcuts. They can even guide you through company and industry politics. If you're smart, you'll engage several mentors, each capable of making you stronger in a different way.

The trouble is, once your mentors have given you their all, you're on your own. You need to figure out which skills to use—not to mention how and when to use them—so that you can clear your own path to victory. That's alright on the surface, and some women make it through on their own just fine. But for many women, mentors simply aren't enough.

"I've learned that mentorship is the second prize: sponsorship is what really matters," says MJ Petroni, CEO of Causeit, which he describes as "half futurist think-tank and half innovation-consultancy." Petroni, trained in cyborg anthropology, is the Cyborg Anthropologist in Residence for NTT, the world's largest telecom, and is also a founding advisor of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Digital Financial Services Platform.

Women and leadership

"I first heard the term 'sponsorship' at the BlogHer Business, Entertainment and Technology conference a few years ago," says Petroni. "In contrast to the useful mentorship and coaching models, which are mostly about advice in a private setting, sponsorship is the concept of lending or giving other people tangible and intangible resources—such as reputation, connections, leads, money, or access—to help them get a leg up."

Petroni says sponsorship can take many forms and offers a few examples:

  • Offering to host a meeting between a woman working her way up the ladder and the high-ranking client or executive with whom she's trying to develop a working relationship
  • Offering tickets to conferences where you're speaking and pointing her out from on stage as another expert to talk with at the break—or better yet, inviting her on-stage with you, or suggesting her expertise instead of yours
  • Co-authoring content to lend the weight of your personal brand to hers
  • Including her on calls with top contacts and highlighting her contributions and skills
  • Stepping back during a meeting and inviting her to lead
  • Bringing up issues of diversity and privilege so that she doesn't have to do it
  • Assisting in contract or proposal-writing that an "insider" might better know how to navigate

"In any form, sponsorship is about lending the financial, human, and social resources you have to others and, like traditional sponsorship, putting something on the line for the person you're sponsoring," he says.

Men do this for other men frequently. They can also do it for women. But women can do it for each other. Petroni says he has had several people sponsor him over the years, and that he now sponsors others, too. He's even made sponsorship a formal program in his company.

"We include sponsorship in the larger model of exchange that we have with our team members, and we provide it formally in their co-created professional development plans," he says. "This formal structuring can be as simple as adding 'writing an article together on Internet of Things and the Connected Home,' or it can be more complex, like including conference attendance and warm introductions as part of the resources someone gets for working with us."

Women Leaders Helping Women Lead

Choosing mentors and sponsors from different professional and social circles is important. But it's just as important to look for ways that you can sponsor or assist other women.

"Women can help each other be heard," says Elene Cafasso, an executive coach at Enerpace. "Many times men either gloss over a point a woman made in a meeting, or they say the same thing and act like they thought of it first. Cafasso offers an effective strategy.

"It's very helpful for another woman or a supportive man in the room to say 'wait—she just said that,' or 'we need to discuss her point before we move on,'" says Cafasso. Simple statements like these, she says, can completely change how people hear, perceive, and respect a woman in business.

Taking the role as sponsor also casts you as an established leader who helps other people develop professionally. Everyone wins. Sponsor relationships also play a vital role in growing your professional network over time. Regardless of whether you are the sponsor or the sponsored, those relationship bonds will be strong for years.

Women and Leadership: Defining Your Destination

You can’t create a road map without first defining your destination. You might say, "That's easy. I want to go straight to the top." Yes, of course, but to the top of what?

"Women need to be very honest about what they want," says Melissa Lamson, CEO of Lamson Consulting, a firm that specializes in helping global companies bridge cultural differences, refine leadership skills, and communicate clearly and effectively.

"Is it money? Then go for money," says Lamson. "Is it a title, stability, to make your partner proud of you? Figure it out, and write it down. Be clear about your target, create mantras or messaging around what you want, and go for it."

In short, map out exactly what you want to happen in your career or business. That, in turn, will help you identify what mentors, sponsors, and other resources you need to get there.

You can also compare your map to the path possibilities that exist in your current position or business. Be prepared to change companies, change industries, change job roles, and anything else you need to do that will take you a step or more closer to your end goal.

"Working harder doesn't get you ahead," says Cafasso. "It's working on the right things, cultivating the right relationships, and making sure the people who can influence your career know about it."

Create Your Own Leadership Advisory Board

You're a smart and savvy professional, but you're too close to the subject (e.g., you) to be objective—especially in areas you're most passionate about. You're also not in a position to know how other people perceive you or to see options that may not be clear in your current field of vision.

You need an advisory board of trusted people who can meet to discuss your options and the viability of your current plans. This will help you take the actions that effectively move you forward.

"One of the most important things a woman can do to propel her career [or business] is to develop an advisory board," says Lori Dernavich, a growth-stage leadership advisor to CEOs and startups.

"Advisory boards aren't just for companies. They're equally important for an individual with plans to grow her career," says Dernavich. "An advisory board will open your eyes to new paths or validate the one you're choosing. It will also uncover what might stand in your way and how to work around it."

She recommends starting your advisory board with a mix of eight to 10 highly skilled people that you trust. Look for people among these groups: clients, friends, colleagues, mentors, previous bosses, and people from outside your company or industry.

"Get the board together in one room to have this discussion, so they can play off of each other. The information will be far richer than if you reached out to them individually," she says.

Leadership tips for women

Own Your Professional Story

While an advisory board provides value as a resource and as a sounding board for your ideas, it can also help you hone your professional message.

"Spend the time—and use support from a coach or an advisor—to explore and understand how your experiences, interests, values, and desires have all shaped you; and get very comfortable talking about it," said Nayla Bahri.

Bahri, a doctorate in adult learning and leadership, spent many years as an assistant dean at Columbia's MBA program. Currently an adjunct faculty member and leadership coach at Columbia, she works in global talent management for Ortho Clinical Diagnostics, a medical diagnostics company.

"Once you've honed your story, whatever it is, get it out there," says Bahri. "Too many women still demur when given the chance to share their achievements or aspirations. We all respect humility and a sense of humor about our personal biographies, but if we don't own our stories, someone else will write them for us—and that's risky."

Bahri adds that women need to be crystal clear about both what they offer and what they want to learn. "And don't apologize for it. We often brush off the importance of a skill set that comes easily to us because of our experience or natural talent," she says.  "Someone else needs that skill, and someone else struggles with something at which you excel—don't disregard it."

Good Leaders Leave a Tidy House

Have you trapped yourself in place by simply being too good at your job? Higher-ups may shudder at the thought of you moving up and leaving crucial tasks to an inferior being. Yes, it happens.

In order to move up, you must first prepare to move out and leave a steady ship in your wake. This is true whether you're an employee or the head of your own company. What you leave behind you is as much a sign of your leadership abilities as the way you handle the challenges ahead.

"Make sure you have a successor," says Cafasso. "If you don't, you'll never be able to move on to your next assignment. Make developing your team and succession planning a priority, and make sure that you give your high potential folks exposure to your boss and the level above you, so they'll feel confident letting a successor take your place. Develop that bench!"

That's exactly what good male leaders do. You need to do it, too. A true leader climbs the career ladder but leaves every rung she passes in a better state than she found it.

Resources for Women Leaders

Each of the experts we interviewed for this story offered resources to help you in your climb to the top. Here's the complied list:

  • Catalyst.org: a top resource for women and business. Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization working on expanding opportunities for women. With more than 700 preeminent corporations as members, Catalyst has offices in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, and Japan.
  • Women 2.0: a media company offering content and conferences for women innovators in technology (both current and aspiring). "Our mission is to increase the number of female founders of technology startups with inspiration, information, and education through our platform."
  • Women Unlimited: an organization that sells comprehensive leadership training packages that groom talented women to be the next generation of top executives.
  • The Corner Office: a section of The New York Times devoted to conversations about leadership and management.
  • Local opportunities cited: your local alumni association, local sorority alumni chapter, and link up with potential mentors and mentees at networking events.
  • The books I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion and Create the Career You Deserve and Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do, both by Kate White, former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine and New York Times bestselling author of business books and suspense novels.

Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.

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