5 Things That Only Successful Female Leaders Understand

Karl Sprague
Jan 2 · 11 min read
Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash

Something doesn’t seem right.

You are hungry to advance your career and to get more ______ (you fill in the blank — more responsibility, more visibility, more authority, more opportunity, more income).

It just doesn’t seem to come as fast as you’d like.

And you’re sure that beyond lip service, other people don’t really understand what you’re going through.

A lot of your business interactions seem to take place in a culture that was set up a generation ago and didn’t account for someone like you. Or your work has you confronting full-on Bro culture…and it is exhausting.

The rules you have to play by seem to be different. Is it just you? Are you being paranoid?

You’d like to approach your future with confidence. And to make sure you are making progress. Every day.

Over the last fifteen years I’ve worked closely. with dozens of female leaders, from solopreneurs to corporate executives, and from start-ups to international companies with more than $1 billion in revenues. During that time, I’ve witnessed certain approaches that have worked extraordinarily well for women leaders.

Here are the common ideas that successful female leaders understand. They’re also the strategies that you can employ to make positive progress in your career. With confidence. Starting now.

1. You need to silence the little voice in your head

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

It is tough enough to deal with customers, vendors, peers, bosses, competitors — without having to deal with your inner critic.

You know that annoying little voice that tells you don’t deserve it. You’re not good enough. You’re too inexperienced / unprepared / arrogant / delusional / timid or whatever negative comments she makes in your subconscious.

She thrives on doubt. She weakens confidence and resolve.

She needs to take a hike.

The beginning of great leadership — and leadership transformation — is self-awareness. And when you are aware of your own subconscious and when it is working against you, it is powerful.

When you recognize it, you can do something about it.

Television host and author Mel Robbins suggests that you actually give a name to your inner critic. If you don’t have a name in mind, I’d suggest Cersei.

Cersei will lie, cheat and steal to get her way.

So will that scheming alter ego in your head.

No more.

I’ve coached some powerful, talented females who were accomplishing results that others could only dream of achieving. But in our one-to-one conversations they shared self-doubts that floored me.

The little voices in their heads seemed to come from life experiences and decades of social reinforcement.

And they continued to hear those voices, despite consistent and significant accomplishments.

Ouch.

Your own inner critic wants you to do things perfectly. Every time.

But guess what? We’re human! We’re imperfect. All of us. Including me. Including you. Acknowledge it. Embrace it. And give your best effort to achieve imperfect results from a flawed person in a messed-up world.

Next time you hear her voice, take a deep breath. And then call her out. In the moment.

Something like: “Get out of here, Cersei, you scheming witch! I am Queen right now and you have no control over me!”

And if we see you chuckling to yourself after handling a tense situation, we’ll know why. Now you’re sitting on the Iron Throne.

2. Wave goodbye to the stereotype (until you choose to invite her back)

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Leadership isn’t formulaic. There isn’t a single mold or a single style. Introverts and extroverts have both been successful. Careful leaders and bold leaders have likewise been successful — or not.

Therefore, it is challenging when others try to limit your leadership capacity based on the stereotypical female attributes:

  • Better listeners
  • More effective communicators
  • Better able to demonstrate empathy and engender trust
  • Good at the “soft skills” (which is open to others’ definition)

Those may apply to you, and they are in fact desirable leadership qualities.

But if people want to limit your leaderships qualities to fit a stereotype, it can lead people to question your ability to take bold action, to make tough decisions or to hold people accountable.

Besides, once people start applying stereotype labels, where does it stop?

What happens when you start getting the comments like:

  • You take great notes, so you should take meeting notes for the whole team.
  • You’re so good at planning and organization, we’ll put you in charge of our next corporate party.
  • You’re better at relationships, so you can deal with that difficult employee (who doesn’t report to you).

You don’t want to get stuck in a role. Defined by others. Constraining you.

Make sure that you develop your own leadership brand. Become known for the unique qualities that you possess.

You should also make sure that you demonstrate some leadership attributes that will resonate with others, regardless of your age, your sex or where you are in the organization.

These include:

  1. Self-awareness — Once you understand yourself, you can better manage yourself. Only then you can effectively manage others. Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and how you impact others.
  2. Effective communication — Ken Blanchard, the author of The One Minute Manager conducted a survey of more than 1,400 business leaders to identify the single most important skill for leaders. The survey results reflected that communication was by far the most important skill. Good communications ensure clarity, alignment, effective delegation and team accountability.
  3. A focus on your team members’ strengths — allow your direct reports and team members to use their strengths as often as possible. In their book Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall suggest that the single biggest predictor of a team’s performance is the extent to which each team member believes that they have the ability to use their strengths at work every day. When people have the ability to use their strengths, they are invigorated by the work they do and produce better results.
  4. DWYSYGTD — Be known for Doing What You Said You’re Going To Do. It conveys to others that you can be trusted. Better results. Less risk. In a society that is full of clutter and self-promoting noise, you stand out as an exception. A very positive exception.

Get known for those things and then attributes of male and female stereotypes fade into the background. Unless you want to acknowledge them. Until you decide to highlight them. Until they work to your advantage.

3. Connect with purpose and make it a priority

Photo by fauxels at pexels.com

Networking provides new contacts, different perspectives, as well as a source of new ideas and future opportunities.

You can’t be limited by the contacts that get introduced by your boss or get left to chance at networking functions. This is your career. Your life.

It is never convenient to network face to face. It takes time and preparation.

Networking online can be a black hole of time and inefficiency.

Successful networking requires intentionality and discipline. You have to schedule time on a regular basis.

There are three different types of people you want to network with:

  • People who can provide insights, contacts or future business.
  • People who are master networkers and who know the kinds of people you would like to meet
  • People who have already provided value in the past. There is a relationship and a track record of delivering value.

Identify who they are. Determine where they are going to be, either in person or online.

Effective networking isn’t about meeting the largest number of people. Collecting biggest stack of business cards is meaningless. And digital networking just to get likes online isn’t the appropriate end game.

When networking, your goal is to create connection and to deliver value to the other person.

Keith Ferrazzi, in his book Never Eat Alone, describes networking as “finding ways to make other people more successful.”

By delivering value to the other person, you create a psychological IOU. Robert Cialdini, in his seminal work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, describes the power of the principal of reciprocity. If I do a favor for you, you feel obligated to do something for me in return. It is a principal that works across different cultures and geographies.

Some tips in order to network effectively:

  1. Preparation — identify in advance who will be there and whom specifically you’d like to meet. Organizers won’t always share information about attendees, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Have your plan in mind for how you can deliver value to them. Formulate questions to ask them that uncovers their interests, their concerns and allows them to talk about themselves.
  2. Elevator pitch — have a prepared response when someone asks “so what do you do?” It should address what others experience when working with you or what outcomes you produce. Avoid settling for sharing just your job title and company name.
  3. Names — repeat the names of people you meet. As Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”
  4. Introductions — Once you meet someone, introduce them to others. You may not know either person well, but the act of introducing them to someone else conveys that you respect them. It may also suggest that you are connected. This is also a great opportunity to repeat their name (see above!).
  5. Follow-up — During the course of your conversations, don’t make promises you don’t have any intention of keeping. Sadly, just the mere act of doing what you said you would do is a differentiator. It makes you memorable. It makes you the exception. For the right reasons.

4. Understand that most men will not…understand

Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels

How other people regard you as a leader is based only partly on what they experience when they interact with you. Unfortunately.

There is also a lot of head trash that exists based on what they’ve been told that they’ve somehow now internalized as fact. Female stereotypes. Industry stereotypes.

People also tend to grade themselves on the curve. When asked if they are committed to a leadership meritocracy and providing opportunities for women, most men will give an enthusiastic yes. And sincerely mean it.

To the extent that women leaders have to deal with different rules, erroneous perspectives, misplaced stereotypes… kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

It is hard for well-meaning, hard-working heterosexual white males to appreciate the challenges faced by a different demographic.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel says that “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

A 2015 Business Week article referred to a survey conducted by columnist and author Catherine Fox, in which 72% of the male respondents thought that significant progress had been made in women’s empowerment and career progression. When female executives were surveyed, 71% disagreed.

Men aren’t blind. Well, not most of them, anyway. But they see your leadership progression and your career arc from a different lens.

Most will attempt to look at the employee most worthy of promotion, the vendor most worthy of the contract or the candidate most worthy of the new job, based on objective, non-biased, criteria. As they see it.

Women have taken different strategies to address this. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In, encouraged corporate women push past their own fears and demand equal opportunity and treatment.

Other women took the entrepreneurial route, by starting their own companies. According to Fundera women started more than 1,800 companies EVERY DAY in 2018. Whether these companies were the new career ventures or a side hustle is unknown, but it speaks to the desire to build something new — on their own terms.

5. Be intentionally and unabashedly you

Photo by Yuliya Shabily on pexels.com

It’s OK to learn from successful leaders. Sometimes you can take an idea here, draw on an example there and add them to your repertoire. But don’t try to BE someone else. The best leaders are not only aware of who they are, but they strive to show up every day and be authentic. They try to be genuine, despite their personal flaws and eccentricities. We all have them. They come with being a part of the human race.

Too many people believe that there is a prototype leadership style that ensures their success and they go through the brain damage of trying to conform to this mythical model.

Don’t do it.

You’ll be ineffective. You’ll get frustrated. Ultimately, you’ll fail.

When you can show up every day and be yourself, it is energizing. When you have to behave differently than your natural style, it can be physically and mentally draining. Exhausting. And stressful.

It takes a level of self-awareness to know how you can most effectively lead, when (and to whom) you should delegate and when you have to suck it up and do the things that you don’t want to do.

It takes courage to take actions that make us feel uncomfortable. Sharing that discomfort — and taking the action anyway — is a powerful example for the rest of your team. It demonstrates a behavior that you may be asking them to exhibit in the future: doing the right thing even when it is uncomfortable.

It also demonstrates vulnerability. Vulnerability creates trust and trust is foundational to leading a team.

Self-awareness is the understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, your behaviors, your motivations and your perspectives. It also includes an understanding of how you are being experienced by others.

Dr. Suess said it best in his book, Happy Birthday to You!, “Today you are you. That is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.”

Embrace the fact that you can’t be great at everything. Bring the best of yourself to the job. Delegate when required to someone else’s strengths. And when you have to step out of character to do something uncomfortable, be intentional about it.

To the extent you can, show up every day and be human. Be you. With pride. With confidence.

Take charge — this is your life after all

You may be frustrated. Business seems to be playing by rules and you weren’t consulted when they were put in place.

But these are the cards you’ve been dealt.

You can embrace the fact that things are changing, but improvement doesn’t seem to be coming fast enough. The opportunities aren’t clear enough. The reward isn’t tangible enough.

You can’t afford to be a passive participant on this journey. It is time to gain control of your future.

The biggest impact you can have involves self-awareness and the people you spend time with. The combination of right perspective / right people is powerful. It helps you drive forward with confidence.

To achieve your goals.

And to be the best version of yourself in the process.

Start with the voice in your head. Once you’ve got her on your side, the other strategies will be much easier.

Let her know she’s beautiful and an awesome leader.

Just like you.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +567K people. Follow to join our community.

Thanks to Robert van Tongeren

Karl Sprague

Written by

Executive Coach, Teacher, Trainer, Speaker and Storyteller

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +567K people. Follow to join our community.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade