Deb Boelkes is the award-winning author of “Women on Top: What’s Keeping You From Executive Leadership?” 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.
For decades, women have steadily made impressive strides in the political and corporate arenas. Still, there’s a lot of ground to cover before we’re equally represented, especially in the upper echelons of the business world. But the changes that have occurred in the last two years have women leaders positioned to leap ahead. The workplace is rapidly changing and evolving in ways no one could have predicted just two years ago. This is a pivotal time for women. The changes we’ve seen in the workplace call for the skill sets that many women naturally possess. We just need to step up and seize the challenge.
Employees everywhere are struggling with stress, anxiety and outright trauma due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If they’re working remotely, it’s harder for them to connect with co-workers and leaders. And, of course, the nature of business itself gets more complex by the day. Supply-chain issues, worker shortages, new customer behaviors — it all adds up to a brave new business world that women’s natural skills and abilities are perfectly suited to navigate.
Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders need to break mental health stigmas in the workplace and create an environment of psychological safety. Many will be asked to transform a group of scattered remote workers into a connected team. They’ll all be balancing multiple shifting deadlines, responsibilities and challenges. The bottom line: Women tend to do all of these things well. We have the communication skills, emotional intelligence, flexibility and agility to meet these challenges and step into more prominent roles inside organizations.
No, I’m not implying that women are better leaders, but that men and women tend to have different innate skill sets. In fact, organizations that blend the special gifts of female and male leaders possess a real “wow!” factor.
Here are a few reasons why women are uniquely poised to lead and succeed:
Women are stellar collaborators. The problems we face in the business world are more complex than they’ve ever been before. This means we need more perspectives at the table to solve them. Rather than competing with others, women are more inclined to join forces with them, which makes us perfectly suited for leading teams.
Women aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know all of the answers. This is always valuable, but in times of uncertainty, when no one really knows the answers, it’s even more so.
Women tend to instinctively realize that working together with others to solve problems is far more powerful than taking an egocentric lone-wolf approach.
Women know how to share the screen. In 2020, those of us who weren’t already familiar with video conferences, Zoom meetings, virtual presentations and collaborative software got a quick-and-dirty crash course. While anyone can use these resources, not everyone can use them effectively — but women’s natural skills give them an edge.
Leaders in the virtual workspace need to be comfortable putting forth ideas and information to the group, while sharing that space with others. Women are great at this. We have a sense of give-and-take and reciprocity that draws people out and encourages others to speak up. We’re good at reading non-verbal cues. These, along with other female communication skills and strengths, can make the difference between engagement and ennui in virtual settings.
Our natural communication skills serve companies well in hard times. Especially in a disruption or crisis, leaders need to be highly visible: sharing information, reassuring, showing empathy and compassion and reinforcing a sense of camaraderie. A communication void generates anxiety — the last thing employees need in already tense times — and erodes trust. Women can leverage our gift for communication — and good listening — to keep people calm and focused.
Women are empathetic connectors. Thanks to the pandemic, not to mention all of the social unrest, political division and economic uncertainty of the past two years, our society has been through a collective trauma. Many employees are feeling unmoored and uncertain, and others are struggling with mental health issues. Leaders need to be aware of how each team member is feeling and respond with caring and empathy, while still driving progress. Companies’ cultures, morale and productivity depend on it.
Women are not afraid to ask for help. Women understand that addressing any deficits by asking for help is often the most efficient way to move forward, not a sign of weakness or failure. When you welcome constructive criticism and seek others’ expertise, potential problems are identified earlier and the best solutions rise to the top.
Women aren’t afraid to offer help. Women don’t tend to view knowledge and expertise with a scarcity mindset; they know that resources are most valuable when shared. And they’re just as likely to give help as they are to ask for it. Whether in a formal mentoring role, leading a team, teaching a seminar or offering a word of advice to a new hire, women don’t hesitate to lift others up. Many of today’s female leaders were guided by the women who came before them, and they know what an incredible ROI mentoring can have.
We’re givers. Women are natural givers and nurturers. We understand the power of giving, whether that means giving of our time, energy and emotional bandwidth to help someone solve a problem; serving as a mentor or just finding ways to lift people up. All of these are valuable gifts — especially in tough times like right now when so many people are struggling with personal issues, as well as their mental and emotional health. It’s also worth noting that when employees feel cared about and invested in by leaders, a company’s retention, morale and productivity all improve.
Women aren’t crippled by criticism. There’s a pernicious stereotype that women are “soft” and “sensitive.” But in reality, women are used to living with — and succeeding in spite of — negative feedback. Explicitly and implicitly, we are all bombarded with critiques about our careers, appearance, parenting, tone of voice, priorities and so much more.
Sadly, women in business are used to being underestimated and having to work harder. We are well practiced at working with people we don’t really care for. I won’t claim that being patronized, judged or criticized doesn’t hurt; it does. But I’m encouraged because I don’t see women folding under that weight; instead, they’re using it as fuel for future success.
We find strength in flexibility. The pandemic was brutally effective at teaching leaders the value of being able to rethink, regroup and adapt at a moment’s notice. Many learned to their detriment that a rigid “my way or the highway” approach is no longer a sign of strength, but a rapid route to failure in this era of unexpected, disruptive change.
Adaptability, resilience, flexibility and agility — all female strengths — are more sought after than ever. Women know how to navigate unexpected roadblocks while still keeping the team on board and the destination in mind — or changing it when necessary.
We are world-class multitaskers. Over the past two years, women have interfaced with clients, run meetings, balanced budgets, created content, confronted supply problems, mediated employee disputes, hired new talent and so much more from their kitchen tables, often while managing their children’s virtual education, caring for their parents and keeping their households from falling apart.
It’s not always easy, comfortable, or desirable, but women are experienced at keeping numerous balls in the air when necessary. That gives us a leg up when leadership positions require us to oversee multiple systems, goals and employees.
Throughout history, women’s innate qualities have enabled them to navigate hard times, learn what they can from them, and move forward. What makes right now different is the fact that women don’t have to return to the status quo after surviving a crisis. Instead, we are perfectly positioned to step into more important leadership roles than ever, break barriers and actively shape the world’s future. | AC&F |