Deb Boelkes is the award-winning author of “Strong Suit: Leadership Success Secrets From Women on Top.” She is not just a role model and heartfelt leader; she’s the ultimate authority on creating best places to work. She has 25+ years in Fortune 150 high-tech firms, leading superstar business development and professional services teams. As an entrepreneur, she has accelerated advancement for women to senior leadership. She also has delighted and inspired more than 1,000 audiences across North America.
The 2023 campaign theme for International Women’s Day is #EmbraceEquity. While this hashtag highlights the tremendous strides women have made in and out of the workplace, it also calls attention to the many areas where we’re still striving to gain ground: pay, promotions, political representation, gender bias, the so-called “motherhood penalty,” and sometimes, our own self-image and self-esteem. I have a message for all women: We are our own best resource in closing the equity gap.
Why should the newest generation of emerging leaders enter their careers with little to no tribal knowledge of what it means to struggle, succeed, and lead as a woman? Instead of climbing from the ground up, rising women should be standing on the shoulders of the women who came before them.
Having worked with and mentored hundreds of female leaders, many of whom were C-level, most are eager to offer a hand to their sisters still climbing the ladder.
I began my career at a time when the business world was much more male-dominated than it is today, and I surmounted a lot of obstacles on my own. I want to pass the lessons I learned on to rising female leaders so they can spend their time and energy learning new lessons and breaking new barriers. After all, that’s what equity is all about: helping others access opportunities so that equality can eventually be achieved.
What’s Your Strong Suit?
I wrote “Strong Suit” to serve as the “voice of a mentor” for women in all fields and at all levels. I interviewed seven women who made it to the top of the corporate world and beyond. You’ll read about their lives in their own words — as well as their insights on topics like identifying and capitalizing on one’s strengths, leading through challenging times, forming relationships at the top, and learning from mistakes and balancing career with family.
The concept of “having it all”—and whether that’s even possible—has sparked fierce debate.
Here are eight insights from my interviews that will help rising women #EmbraceEquity:
Your past does not define you: We all learn lessons and pick up traits — positive and negative — from our parents and other formative figures. Their expectations and opinions of us help shape our trajectories. Most of us were probably told, “You can do anything you set your mind to,” but we may have also absorbed negative lessons about women’s roles and our own capabilities.
Ultimately, your background does not determine whether you can make it to the top. This is something a lot of us know in theory, but have trouble internalizing. We carry limiting—and inaccurate — assumptions about what we have to offer and what our place in the world should be. Try to identify these beliefs and use them as a springboard for positive action.
Appearance matters: Every day is a dress rehearsal for the C-suite (or whatever goal you are working toward), and your appearance impacts how others perceive you. The women I interviewed were pleased that expectations regarding appearance are not as stringent, and perhaps unfair, as they used to be. But they all agreed that presence does matter, even in fields where individuality, creativity, and informality are the norm. Here’s my advice: Don’t think of it as dressing to “please” others. You aren’t. All of us — men and women — should use our appearance as a tool to positively influence how others respond to us.
Speak up: Stop being sorry for asking questions and sharing your opinion. Many women tend to minimize themselves, usually unconsciously. They’ll say things like, “Sorry, but I have a question,” or, “I could be wrong, but ….” Sometimes they’d rather not say anything than share an opinion that hasn’t been thoroughly thought-out and researched. I urge all women to remember: You got to where you are because you are smart, qualified and capable. Others saw those things in you then, so continue to showcase them now.
Linda Rutherford, executive vice president and chief communications officer of Southwest Airlines, recalls that after being promoted to vice president, she initially struggled to speak up in the boardroom. “If I had a thought before, sometimes I would whisper it to the person next to me. But then the room did not benefit from that thought or that perspective. I have learned that my value is to share that thought or that perspective with everyone in the room.”
“Executive” and “emotionless” aren’t synonyms. As the leader of a peer mentoring program for C-level women, I have met many women who think that, once they reach “the top,” they need to be unemotional and mentally tough at all times. These female execs hide or shut down any expression of empathy, anxiety, indecision or even joy. They hold other people at arm’s length to avoid dealing with emotional upheaval.
No wonder we think it’s lonely at the top! For many years, female leaders did have to tamp down so-called expressions of femininity as they fought to ascend the male-dominated ranks. That’s why, as we continue to work toward equity, it’s so important to have friendships with other female leaders. Build an inner circle where you can be candid and can count on support and authentic advice.
Leadership is not about your skills. It’s about your people. Some leaders, especially new ones, are stuck in the mindset that their success hinges on the technical skills they were judged on prior to their promotion. But leadership isn’t about how well you can do something; it’s about how well you can develop, engage and motivate your team so that they can do that task. Your first priority as a leader is assembling and empowering a great team, followed by removing any obstacles that stand in the way of their success. When you enable everyone to perform at their individual best, you’ll all cross the finish line together.
Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Kathleen M. Gainey agrees. “What I quickly learned is, people are your most important resource. If you invest in people, they will take care of you. When you make a mistake, they will correct it … If you have created an environment where they can share information with you and not … be yelled at, or screamed at, they will share things with you that you need to know.”
Assessments exist for a reason. Use them. It can be surprisingly challenging to answer the question, “What are your strong suits?” A true strong suit isn’t just something you’re good at; it should also bring you joy and tie into your purpose. To help you zero in on these sometimes-elusive strengths, how they manifest in your life, and how to best leverage them, I recommend assessments like CliftonStrengths and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
Knowing what makes you stand out can give you a big leg up and help you become the best version of yourself. Focusing on what you are really great at and love doing will elevate your performance and enhance your authenticity. You’ll be comfortable with yourself as well as your evolving roles and responsibilities, rather than feeling like an imposter or a square peg in a round hole as you climb the ladder.
If you choose to improve in one area, make it soft skills. Communication and relationship-management skills are what build a great culture (and a great culture is what leads to great metrics, not the other way around). Yet, despite the fact that this generation of workers has made it clear how much they value good relationships with their leaders, there is a noted “soft-skill gap” in many business education programs. That’s why I recommend identifying role models and adopting their behaviors, attitudes and methods.
There is a big gap between understanding organizational theory and becoming an inspirational leader. The only way to fill it is through observing and, more importantly, doing. Start by treating people the way you would want to be treated and consciously inspiring them to be their best. You’ll instinctively feel which tactics work and can build from there.
Having it all: The concept of “having it all”— and whether that’s even possible — has sparked fierce debate. Based on my own experience and the feedback I’ve received from fellow executive mothers, I believe that women can enjoy a fulfilling career and a strong family life — but success in this endeavor has to be a team effort.
Just like building a successful executive career, raising children demands large amounts of time, energy and emotional investment. Sharing the load with others who are also invested in your child’s future should not be seen as a weakness or failure, but as a prudent decision to enhance everyone’s well-being. You’ll need a supportive partner, a trusted network of family and friends or reliable outside childcare—often all three!
When it comes to embracing equity, leveraging your strong suits and helping others do the same is akin to “a rising tide lifts all boats.” I have seen firsthand how powerful it is when successful women advise, develop and support their sisters. I hope you’ll let the campaign theme for this year’s International Women’s Day motivate you to seek out female role models …and perhaps become a mentor yourself. AC&F