Women in Leadership: Improving the Numbers

Women in Leadership: Improving the Numbers

We’ve all seen the headlines. With a few recent exceptions (Gina Haspel, recently confirmed to head the CIA; Stacey Cunningham, appointed president of the New York Stock Exchange) new data suggest women leadership may be shrinking.

Tricia Hart, outreach manager of Digital Third Coast recently sent me this very useful yet depressing data (From a study commissioned by KDM Engineering) about the dearth of women at the top of organizations. She shares this:

New reports show the number of women in the boardroom of Fortune 500 companies fell by 25% this year, after an all-time high in 2017. It comes as no surprise that only 60 women over the past 40+ years have managed to shatter the glass ceiling and assume the reigns of Fortune 500 companies–that’s a paltry average of 1.32% during that period.

But don’t let these bleak stats discourage you. Instead, ask yourself these daring questions:

Hard-won experience has taught me seven proven ways to climb:

1. Seek out male mentors. Fact is, they are still in charge in high places. Don’t let the #metoo movement discourage you. Find smart, generous men in leadership positions and seek their advice and counsel. Then take their advice, act on it, and report back. Do this again and again. Seeing your hard work and determination may turn them into your champion who will lobby for you and help you get a seat at the table. This has happened for me and many women leaders I know

2. Get P&L experience. From where you are now, how do you get in positions where you have profit & loss responsibility? These are “line” positions and are key to your rise. Early in my career as brand manager at RJ Reynolds, I was promoted into a position that gave me P & L responsibility. Little did I know how very helpful those insights would be when I became a corporate board director. (More about that later.) I have seen smart women lobby their way out of “staff” positions in their corporate org charts into P & L jobs.   It can show management you are very serious about earning your way to the top.

3. Say yes to “stretch” assignments. The more challenging the better! This is a proven way to distinguish yourself and rise out of entry level and mid-management positions. Yes, there are risks in saying yes. You may stumble a few times, learning as you go. But isn’t that what leaders-in-training do?

4. Fight the fear. Many women, including myself, have suffered “Imposter Syndrome (toxic self-talk that questions whether you belong in a circle of “winners.”) If this is truly haunting you and holding you back, get help now. It could come in the form of a professional coach with a proven track record for teaching you coping skills, or a gifted therapist that helps you get to the root of your insecurity. When she’s had a hard day, one top executive I know pours herself a glass of wine, slowly reads her impressive resume, line by line, savoring each achievement—remembering the hard work it took. And most of all, how much she has achieved and how far she has come!

5. Be a team player. Build your reputation as a person who is a real value to any team you play on. We’ve all worked on teams with dreadful naysayers, pessimists and folks that don’t carry their weight. Don’t be one! Instead, help your teammates and be generous and kind. Give credit to others. Be one that is known for doing more than your fair share. Build up your “goodwill” bank by helping others to climb too. As the saying goes, “What goes around, comes around.

6. Build your professional brand. Follow your passion about a subject and do the work to build your brand around it. I did that in the 90’s by writing a number of popular books and white papers on Customer Loyalty. This work ultimately got me invited to speak at conferences around the world. This subject matter expertise also helped me be considered and fully vetted for a corporate board director seat in 2003 on Luby’s/ Fuddruckers (NYSE: LUB) which, in turn, enabled me to write the book, Earn Your Seat on a Corporate Board.

7. Get known in your industry. A great way to do this is volunteer and ultimately accept leadership roles in your trade association. This worked for me when the National Association of Board Directors (NACD) was starting a chapter in Austin. I became a founding member and worked hard on recruiting new members. With the chapter now thriving, I am often ask to serve on panels or moderate them in Austin, and in other chapters across the country.

In the next installment we will look at what corporations can do to target talented women and help them rise.

Forbes.com Contributor

It is a true privilege to be a columnist at Forbes. Forbes is a community of talented people with deep knowledge in their genre.

Temper your expectations of yourself. Being “perfect” is fruitless.