For all the disruption it has unleashed, the pandemic has also propelled us toward the next generation of work. It has elevated remote work and fused professional and personal life for many employees.
Leaders who know how to self-manage while navigating the unexpected have forged ahead during this challenging year. The emotional discipline, resilience and self-awareness required in a crisis play to strengths that many women have honed as they’ve worked their way into corner offices and board rooms, trying to look the part even though they hardly resemble their peers and predecessors.
The obstacles many women have faced as they’ve ascended have seasoned them to lead as the next generation of work takes shape, cued by the pandemic’s unique challenges.
Hurdles to leadership
I started in HR because I am passionate about diversity and inclusion. As a working mother, I want to help parents, especially moms. I recognize that women tend to opt out before they max out, and I am committed to empowering them.
World Economic Forum’s Victoria Masterson shares that new research has found that one in four women is considering leaving the workforce. “Mothers are significantly more likely than fathers to be thinking about downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce, with childcare responsibilities as a primary reason,” she writes.
We can develop female leaders’ potential by understanding their strengths and empowering them. One way to achieve this is by being intentional with stretch assignments and development opportunities. Another strategy is to pair female employees with mentors to strengthen success and retention efforts.
It takes a culture committed to developing female and diverse talent to empower those individuals to prioritize and pursue their own success. I love the concept of women championing and elevating other women. I’ve done this at my company by inviting our two female board members, Lynn Kilbourne and Bradaigh Wagner, as panel guests at our in-house network, StrongHer. This inclusive initiative helps to unleash potential, magnify contributions and increase women’s representation at all levels across teams. This is a volunteer network and open to all employees.
Bridges to leadership
A common challenge that women face is there are fewer female role models the further you advance. I have had many women who inspired me and contributed to my growth and success, but I haven’t had many prepare me for my current role.
As a female working in tech companies for 20 years, my promotions were primarily through male bosses and champions. They were good allies and outstanding leaders. But there are some things that they could not teach me; for example, they did not have to routinely prove that they deserve a seat at the table, while I had to show that I belonged every time I advanced. Many women spend their entire careers code-switching, learning to read the room and seeking allies with an urgency that their male counterparts often neither share nor notice. Women have to learn to build credibility from an automatic deficit.
While I admire the male leaders who helped me forge my trajectory, my experience was different from theirs. I couldn’t simply model their leadership style; developing my own has been fundamental to my leadership growth.
This self-taught leadership approach is not unique to me. It’s the formula that has seasoned many female and diverse leaders for their work. It has been our secret ingredient for guiding our teams through the difficulties of the last year.
Create a culture that champions women’s success
We never stop learning, developing and growing into our leadership selves. Part of what amplifies our lessons is sharing what got us here. Mentorship is an essential part of growth for those on both sides of the equation.
I had to build relationships and seek mentors and coaches intentionally. I leveraged my network to connect, learn and engage. Doing so is a skill, a resource and a lifesaver. Now, we need to activate allies and champions to enhance connection and create safe spaces.
This is essential because we’re losing female professionals when there is a unique place for the soft skills that their trajectory has refined. “Senior-level women are significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel under pressure to work more and be ‘always on,’ ” Masterson points out. “And they are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. Almost three in four cite burnout as a main reason.”
Kilbourne inspired our StrongHer participants to “be more proactive in managing your career instead of waiting for opportunities to be presented to you. If you wait for the organization, it will be too late. Empower yourself to take ownership; ensure you are identifying development opportunities with each significant project. Cross-functional work increases exposure across an organization.”
This is the clear insight that women need to fuel and focus on their advancement.
Your voice differentiates you. “Don’t sit in the corner; don’t have a quiet presence,” advises Wagner. “Listen effectively and show an interest in learning. Be deeply curious. Identify what you want to comment on and be selective. Pick your moments. Start observations with a compliment, ask–’Help me understand,’ ‘What am I missing?’ ”
I hope that all employees have the resources they need to develop their leadership skills and pursue their ambition. However, if you find that it’s part of your job to create this yourself, here’s how to forge ahead. Find advocates. It doesn’t have to be other women. Some of my best advocates are men, fathers of daughters and leaders who championed my success. Stay connected to leaders who you admire who have lifted you up. As you advance, your network will encourage you and remind you of your value.
The work-from-home revolution has cued a whole new way of being present in the workforce. Women, who have long been operating from their guts instead of a playbook, are uniquely positioned to lead this charge.