When you are trying to get your career or a new business off the ground, it can be easy to admire a female leader from afar and wonder how they make success look so effortless. The reality is that they, too, have experienced challenges on their road to the top.
In my interviews with inspiring female leaders for my Birds of a Feather blog, they share with me their leadership journey. Some of the challenges they’ve overcome include:
- people vocally disagreeing with their appointment to their role;
- bullying and harassment;
- burn out; and
- imposter syndrome.
Nonetheless, they’ve persisted, often with the encouragement of others who’ve seen their potential and believed they could succeed.
In honour of International Women’s Day 2022, I am sharing eight career tips from inspiring female leaders that I’ve interviewed. You can click on each woman’s name to read about their leadership journey.
1. Find mentors who will support your goals.
“Give yourself permission to be who you want to be, and find mentors who will support you in achieving your vision,” says OzHarvest CEO Ronni Kahn AO.
Alcidion CEO Kate Quirke agrees and recommends choosing a mentor who will help you identify and build on your strengths, including identifying the types of roles that would play to and build on your skillset. You can find such a mentor within your business or industry, she says. Or, you could join an organisation like Mentor Walks and be paired with someone aligned with your goals.
While some people build long-term relationships with their mentors, Bobbi Mahlab AM, Chair of Mahlab Media and co-founder of Mentor Walks Australia, says mentors are not necessarily for life. She recommends finding mentors among your network, someone who will fill a need at that point in time.
2. Challenge yourself and take calculated risks.
Many women won’t pursue a role without feeling confident that they have the skills and experience to succeed. However, Westpac Bank’s Group Executive Human Resources, Christine Parker says not to rely on others to encourage you to pursue career opportunities. “Challenge yourself, have the confidence that you can do it and take calculated risks,” she says.
If you need to give yourself a pep talk now and then, Bobbi Mahlab AM recommends keeping a file of all your achievements and the positive feedback you have received. If you’re experiencing self-doubt, remind yourself of your capabilities by looking at the list.
However, if your work environment is driving self-doubt, it’s time to leave.
“If you are not enjoying your job, it’s time to look for a new role that will allow you to flourish,” advises Starlight Children’s Foundation CEO Louise Baxter.
3. On-the-job experience can be as valuable as tertiary education.
If you are reluctant to apply for a promotion because you haven’t been to university or don’t have a masters, think again. While there are certainly benefits in tertiary education, there is a lot to be said for practical experience. You might also find it more useful to study later when the knowledge will enhance your on-the-job experience, or to do short, goal-specific courses.
“Some of the people that I have admired most, that I have worked for, haven’t had a tertiary education,” says HSBC Global Private Banking and Wealth CEO Annabel Spring.
If you’re worried you’re underqualified for a role, write an application letter in defence of yourself for the position, suggests Centre for Digital Transformation of Health Director Professor Wendy Chapman. Argue for yourself and convince yourself first. Then seek feedback from other people about how you are pitching yourself for the role. They may have insights into your skills that you can incorporate.
4. Ask for the flexibility you need to balance your work and life commitments.
If more flexibility helps your career and your family, talk to your manager, says Kate Quirke. Pitch a case that demonstrates how the business will benefit from improved work-life balance policies.
And if you’re returning to work from maternity leave, don’t feel bad about leaving work early to pick up your children, or judge yourself more harshly than your male colleagues, says Christine Parker. Her advice? If you’re getting the job done, there’s no need to feel guilty.
5. Learn to ask questions, be a good listener and authentic communicator.
Regardless of what role you’re in, asking questions shows you are interested and want to learn. “If I was going to give myself, or anyone any advice, it would be to learn how to ask good questions. Now that’s a skill,” says Engineers Australia CEO, Dr Bronwyn Evans AM.
Equally, being a good listener is essential, too. “Over time, I’ve learned that listening is just as important, if not more so, than speaking,” says Master Builders Australia CEO Denita Wawn, stating that all too often, people listen without hearing.
Good leaders also need to be good communicators so their teams understand and support their vision. Learn to tailor your message to suit your audience, improving engagement and buy-in.
6. Surround yourself with good people.
Surround yourself with better people than you at your job, says Ronni Kahn AO. When they do well, you will look good, too.
“Don’t ever think that you can’t bring the best people around you because you’re scared they’ll show you up. They will only make you shine,” Kahn says.
7. When faced with seemingly impossible challenges, stay positive.
Sometimes, inexplicably, bad things can happen in your life. Try to identify the upside of the circumstances rather than focusing on the negative.
“You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude,” says Dr Nadine Marcus, Associate Professor, Computer Science and Engineering, at UNSW.
Professor Wendy Chapman agrees. “When faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable, don’t just give up. Use out-of-the-box thinking to consider how you can make it happen and get input from your support network,” she says.
8. Be true to yourself and your definition of success.
Female leaders should believe in themselves, be true to their vision and follow their instincts, says Patricia Carroll OAM, CEO of St George and Sutherland Community College (SGSCC).
This includes being a feminine leader. “Be your authentic self, and if you are a feminine woman, embrace it,” says Denita Wawn.
Finally, define what success means to you. “It can be very different to other people, and different at different times of your life,” says Bobbi Mahlab AM.
© This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA