Women as Business Leaders: Advice from the Top

How can women, as business leaders, help ourselves get ahead? You might wonder how studying exemplary business women translates to applicable lessons for executives in the field. Well, there are some female business leaders inspiring change—and they’re working in a wide variety of industries and roles. We can follow their lead and keep up the momentum they’ve started to continue to make progress in areas that need attention, for women in the business world. There are also some behaviors and habits we can cultivate, according to female leaders who have already done the hard work of climbing to the top.

Exemplary Women in the Business World

There are many prominent leaders in the business world whom we can look up to, as examples. Shonda Rhimes is a writer at ABC for shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, where she writes about controversial subjects and casts a good number of women in dynamic roles. Kara Swisher and Debbie Sterling are two women related to the tech industry who are making an effort to change the status quo. Swisher is an investigative journalist who has pointed out glaring gender and race gaps in Silicon Valley; and Sterling is encouraging young girls interested in STEM by creating engineering-related toys for girls via GoldieBlox, helping to narrow the gender gap in the engineering field. Lastly, Marissa Mayer, President, and CEO of Yahoo, is well known for increasing the length of maternity leave and fighting for more transparency in the NSA’s data collection policies.

Another woman making great strides in the business world is Lisa Petrilli, founder of C-Level Strategies. According to Petrilli, executive leaders should create and maintain a vision—and, moreover, they should have a passion for that vision! She emphasizes the importance of communicating and explaining your idea clearly, so people understand it. Also, don’t feel the need to go it alone: make an effort to hire and promote those who share your vision and understand their role in realizing that vision. Because of the specificity of your goals, it’s also important to implement some way to evaluate your employees’ work. That way, you have a system for measuring your progress, and you’ll be able to develop ways to help your staff to improve, if necessary.

Traits & Habits of Successful Business Leaders

In a recent Forbes article, Lisa Song Sutton discusses a few ways women can become fearless leaders, starting with getting rid of any fear you might have about being “the only female in the room.” In the business world, being the sole woman in a roomful of men will probably be a frequent occurrence. However, you should realize that the only thing you can control is how you choose to react to negativity; it’s possible for a positive attitude and strong performance to assuage and largely eliminate your colleagues’ doubts.

Surprisingly enough, more often than you might expect, some of the most critical members may include other women. There has been substantial research examining why women compete with each other—including a literature review by Tracy Vaillancourt in 2013 that found women express mostly indirect aggression toward other women in the form of both self-promotion and derogation of rivals. Rather than choosing to compete with your female colleagues, however, it would more greatly benefit all parties involved if, instead of participating in cutting other women down, you chose to mentor each other. Sutton argues that mentoring other women “supports a social revolution and the realization that we aren’t in competition with each other, but more so with ourselves.”

In Competition With Ourselves

Speaking of being in competition with ourselves, sometimes we truly are our own worst enemies. Pat Olsen wrote a piece in Diversity Woman recently about ways women can be more assertive and overcome the tendency to apologize, and the first tip she gave was to believe in your self-worth. Quickly following on the heels of her call for doing “self-work,” however, was the reminder that it’s more important to be respected than to be liked. In other words, you should focus more on liking yourself than in trying to get others to like you.

If you’re concerned about others’ opinions of you, you may hold yourself back from speaking your mind during meetings or introducing an innovative idea during a presentation. The importance of speaking of your mind assertively and genuinely, without fear, can’t be stressed strongly enough. It’s an extension, of sorts, of the adage, “Fake it till you make it.”

If you come across as impressive and carry yourself with confidence, you will earn your colleagues’ respect. If you come across as impressive and carry yourself with confidence, you will earn your colleagues’ respect.

However, beyond a positive attitude, it’s crucial to network with influential colleagues and senior-level leaders who have influence in your company. If that necessarily denotes male counterparts at the management level, so be it. “Don’t be afraid to be a pioneer,” says Kerry Doyle, CEO of the Heart Foundation. Of course, it can be scary to find oneself in the front of the line without any other women with whom you can relate, as a peer; however, the potential gains and opportunities usually outweigh the risk. And if you consistently find yourself along at the top of the ladder, make an effort to pull other women onto the ladder with you. Studies have shown that a ‘pipeline’ of female managers, rather than merely a female CEO, is necessary in order to help more middle management-level women attain executive positions in the business world.

To get to a more utopian, gender-balanced version of the corporate world, in the U.S. don’t be afraid to dream big. Studies show, in fact, that there’s reason to be optimistic about the future of business models when it comes to a more philanthropic, socially-conscious corporate world: Jean Tang reports in a recent Forbes article that “compared with men, women are doubly likely to create social impact ventures.” Therefore, women should embrace their tendency to want to “do good” and use the instinct to their advantage, when searching for entrepreneurial inspiration.

Encouragingly, Tang reminds us, the Dalai Lama said, “The world will be saved by Western women.” This bodes well for the future of corporate America, which is sure to be populated by more women than in the past. Furthermore, business leaders, more than ever, are striving toward socially conscious causes that exist to benefit humankind, rather than simply to make profits. As women, we should be optimistic about this trend, and be bold in our visions as leaders. We have plenty of good company when it comes to other women who can serve as role models and examples to us of what we can do when we put our minds to it. Let us go forth, then.

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