It is well known that women remain under-represented in the boardroom and in the C-suite. What is less well known is that this gender imbalance is costing businesses—in idea generation, performance, and profits. In Money on the Table: How to Increase Profits Through Gender-Balanced Leadership, I explain why it is critical to place more female talent in leadership positions. While there is much that organizations must do to achieve this—and which I explore in my book—women themselves also need to take action.
Based on my own experience watching male and female leaders succeed in senior management roles, I have come to understand the behaviors that enabled these people to be called out from the crowd. If there was one single common thread it was confidence. Successful leaders behaved in ways that caused them to be noticed, heard, and remembered.
There is no question that women must be their authentic selves. The trick is to deliver their uniqueness in the most effective way possible. Here are five rules that will help women who want to lead:
1. Speak First
Yes, first, not last. It doesn’t matter if your idea is not fully baked, with all of the possible pitfalls identified. If you wait until everyone else’s ideas are heard, while you refine yours or, worse, come up with a reason why yours is not a good idea, one of two things will happen:
- You will never be heard, because you’ll never get the chance to speak, and the conversation will move on.
- You will never be heard because someone else said it first.
If you have trouble getting the attention of the room when you need it, there are a few techniques you can try. It starts with body language. Be confident. Don’t slump. Lean forward on the table. Or stand up. Move to the front of the room if necessary. Speak quickly and with energy. Turn up the volume.
2. Make Time for Face-to-Face Communication
Electronic communication has changed our lives forever, professionally and personally. For women who love to multitask—and many of us do—we often miss opportunities to demonstrate our thought leadership and therefore be seen as a leader.
Moreover, you can’t adequately or even appropriately demonstrate your interest or passion for a subject or issue that requires debate with your boss, with a peer, with your subordinate, or anyone else if you don’t show up in person. Anyone can make a point better—more clearly, more passionately, and with all of the supporting evidence—in person. And women need to do this especially because it will increase your odds of being heard, gaining buy-in, and winning your opponent over, particularly if your opponent is a man. It’s harder to say no in person. It’s harder for you to bat the ball back in an email conversation, and there is absolutely no chance of using body language to your advantage if you can’t be seen.
3. Stay in Control
Many of us have experienced at least some degree of anger and frustration in the workplace. Men and women react differently. Men raise their voices and swear more commonly when they get angry in the workplace. Women often cry when they are angry. You can do that if you want, but you won’t be seen as an effective leader. You will be seen as emotional. There is a double standard when it comes to displaying emotion in the workplace.
Conversely, don’t be quick to act the peacemaker. Women have a natural reflex to smooth a situation over and make a conflict go way. It’s not your job to make a disagreement disappear. If you want to diffuse an issue, ask questions. Stay engaged, stay focused, and don’t become defensive. If there’s no way to keep going, then suggest a break and schedule a time to reconvene. Resist the tendency to avoid returning to the discussion. Push past that fear and get back to it.
4. Give Up the Guilt
The demands on everyone’s time in a continuously connected world have never been greater. Guilt causes women to overcommit, take care of others first, and put their own needs at the back of the line. Women who have reached top leadership roles have learned how to push guilt to the side. That’s not to say that these women didn’t sometimes feel guilty or perhaps inadequate while trying to balance work and family. We have to realize we often give too much of ourselves.
Women have a more difficult time than men saying no to requests that they really don’t want to do, whether for work, personal life, or the community. Prioritize your time. Be prepared with a polite no: “I would love to participate, but my plate is full right now. I just won’t be able to make that commitment.”
5. Play to Win
Don’t be afraid to press your point, to press it hard, and to keep pressing. Women are afraid to take risks in ways that men are not. But you need to be resilient. You need to get comfortable with the idea of rejection in pursuit of your aim. Women often hate being persistent, because they find this behavior annoying. But men often need to hear an idea more than once to digest it. Yes, it can be exhausting. But you have a choice. Either play to win or just sit on the sidelines and be frustrated.