My passion for advancing women in leadership was ignited by personal experiences within the financial services industry. Sadly, there were very few professional female role models for me to admire and emulate, especially early in my career. I also quickly noticed that women were frequently subjected to various stereotypes and prejudices, which came to the foreground when they assumed a leadership role or were being considered for a promotion or special project. I saw how men were praised for being aggressive or assertive, while women who had these same traits were viewed as being pushy, stubborn, and bossy. Men were stern taskmasters while women were often labeled as “too difficult to work for.” Women were criticized for not being able to see the big picture, taking things too personally, and being too soft to make hard decisions.
When I was passed over for a couple of leadership roles, I began to worry whether I would be able to truly advance in my industry. I decided the best way for me to get noticed was to take a sales job and drive revenue for the company, since the sales results would objectively demonstrate my performance compared with my male peers. With this in mind, I took a job as a wholesaler and eventually became a top salesperson at the firm. My success helped me earn a coveted management role and ultimately positioned me to step up and become the President of Distribution for a large investment management firm.
Because I personally encountered some biased thinking when pitted against my male counterparts for positions of leadership and power, I was determined to become an advocate for change and a strong female role model. I wanted to encourage women to reach their full leadership potential in a biased world.
Throughout my career, I noticed eight common traits among successful leaders, regardless of gender. I call them the “8 Cs of an Effective Leader.” I’ve tried to incorporate these attributes in my career and personal life, as well as coach and mentor other leaders on these growth opportunities. Below, I share the most important things women leaders should know about the 8 Cs.
Communication: Authenticity has become the new gold standard in leadership, and honest communication is at the heart of showing your true self at work. Unfortunately, it’s hard to open up in the workplace if you’re always worried about being judged. This can be a major obstacle for women, especially as they advance in their careers and they are surrounded by fewer and fewer female peers. If your current work environment doesn’t give you a sense of belonging where you feel supported in communicating honestly and openly, find a new work environment. To be an effective leader, you have to feel safe laughing, crying, getting angry, and asking for help. Your vulnerability will help you communicate better and make you more real to your supervisors, colleagues, and employees, helping you connect with them on a deeper level.
Commitment: Going after something you really want takes dedication and the fortitude to stay the course. Both men and women leaders show strong commitment in the workplace, but women tend to be harder on themselves when things don’t go exactly as planned. Men will make a mistake and move on; women will make a mistake and lose sleep over it. Personally, I found that I needed to train myself to view commitment through the lens of perseverance, rather than successfully achieving a specific outcome. That way, I’m able to focus on hard work, learning opportunities, and readying myself for the next challenge.
Courage: Leaders are typically gutsy individuals who embrace change, dare to be different, and are willing to put themselves at risk. However, women in the workplace have historically not been encouraged to take these kinds of actions or believe in their instincts. In fact, ridicule often rears its ugly head even in the wake of a successful outcome when a gutsy decision can be labeled as a lucky guess. As a woman leader, it’s critical you remain undaunted because enough “lucky guesses” will eventually turn heads and get you noticed. Playing it safe will not.
Character: Setting an example is not the main way of influencing others — it’s the only way. I’ve always tried to act with integrity and be a good role model for my colleagues. Even when it was hard to push for higher standards, I can now look back and see that my efforts were well worth it. As an example, when I became president of a business line in a past job, my team was comprised of 95 percent white men. Within five years, we achieved 40 percent diversity without compromising profitability or any other key business metric. As a female leader, it’s your responsibility to use your power and raise up other diverse colleagues to level the professional playing field.
Creativity: A good leader thinks and acts with the help of a constantly developing imagination, so build a mindset for the unconventional and ponder ideas that go against the grain. Don’t be afraid to break the rules. (Personally, I was always more comfortable asking for forgiveness than permission!) As the Pulitzer Prize Winner, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
Caring: Emotional intelligence (EQ) is arguably just as important as IQ for leaders. To garner cooperation from team members, you must show you genuinely care about, appreciate, and respect their contribution and that you will do your best to help them maximize their potential. Early in my career, I was told my emotions were a “liability” in the workplace and made me look weak. I might have believed it then, but now I understand how ridiculous that feedback truly was. Women have a general advantage of being empathetic, so it’s smart to lean on this as a strength. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Confidence: You must believe in yourself and be willing to stand out in a crowd if you are going to inspire confidence in others. Confidence comes from within, from knowing deep down that you’ve got what it takes. I’ve found far too many capable women who were their own worst enemy because they were too embarrassed to proclaim their talents, strengths and successes. We need to learn how to be more outwardly comfortable with the position we’ve earned.
Competence: If you’re not competent, all the Cs in the world won’t help you get to the top, let alone stay there. But for women leaders, the real struggle doesn’t lie in becoming competent, but in seeing ourselves as competent. In the workplace, we are more likely than men to feel like we have something to prove. There’s the old saying that women work twice as hard for half the recognition, and in my 35 years in business, I’m sad to say I agree with that. But I’ve learned that instead of worrying about constantly demonstrating competence and gaining validation, it’s better to focus on continuous learning. The truth is that we can all get better at our jobs if we work at it. Competence is really about the desire to learn, keep learning, and turn learning into leadership.
Leadership, like any skill, needs to be continually honed and fine-tuned. That’s why the Eight Cs are a journey, not a destination. As you continue on your career path, keep coming back to the 8 Cs and putting in the hard work for becoming a more effective leader. You’ll see firsthand that your feminine strengths are valuable and you don’t need to downplay your gender to reach your goals.
By Maryann Bruce
Experienced Corporate Director & Former Fortune 100 President & CEO, C200 Member since 2002