Career Coach: Tips for rising women leaders

May 4

Recently, I had the pleasure of taking part in an inspiring event we hosted at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business. The third annual event, called “Women Leading Women,” is a celebration of successful women and their career journeys. This year, we honored one impressive alumna, Brenda Freeman, who recently joined DreamWorks Animation as global head of television marketing after holding several other top positions in entertainment and corporate marketing.

I facilitated a “fireside chat” with Freeman in front of audience of nearly 250 women who chose to spend their Thursday evening hearing from a strong woman business leader and networking with each other. Her advice and the takeaways from the evening are relevant to everyone — whether you are a rising woman leader or you work with or manage women. Some of her advice was as follows:

Find good mentors and role models. Seek them out — don’t wait for them to come to you. Look for a role model a few levels higher in your organization or field and build a relationship. Start by asking that person to coffee (as Freeman says, it’s less of a commitment for them than lunch so they are more inclined to agree to meet). Forge mentor relationships with several people and continue to do so throughout your career — even when you reach the leadership level. “I have my own ‘board of directors’ that I like to go to when I make big career decisions,” said Freeman.

Take risks. Volunteer for stretch assignments and have confidence that you can perform the job well. Your male counterparts will be stepping up to the plate with plenty of confidence.

Do the work. Don’t expect to start moving up the ranks as soon as you join an organization. First, you have to spend the time working hard and proving yourself. You have to deliver. In the beginning of your career, focus mostly on the hard skills. When you become a director and start managing people, it’s a total flip. Soft skills become more important the more senior you get.

Get in a role you really love. Then it won’t seem like work. As Freeman said: “You have to be really passionate about what you do, because you have to spend a lot of hours doing it. When you love what you do, you are usually really good at what you do.”

Build a strong support network. Women especially need a strong network of people to help manage the demands of work and family life.

Always be very strategic about your messaging. Everything from your clothes to how you speak makes a statement. If you want to be a woman in leadership, dress the part of a powerful, well-put-together woman. When you speak, don’t be apologetic; be confident.

Lead in a way that makes you comfortable. Don’t lead like your male counterparts or like you think you should lead. Find a style that works for you.

Understand your organization’s culture. Morph your own communication style for your position. This will help you lead in a way that won’t be off-putting to those you manage or work with. Freeman talked about how different the culture was in organizations where she has worked, from the fast-paced media world in New York, to the “southern hospitality” of Atlanta, and laid-back creative vibe in Los Angeles. Find an organizational culture that works for your own style.

Don’t avoid confrontation and conflict. Just be strategic about how you manage it. Managing conflict is probably one of the most critical skills. As Freeman said, you don’t want to be labeled as the emotional woman.” You also don’t want to fall on the other end of the spectrum as “cold” or “unfeeling. “A lot of it is being an incredible student of human behavior and being in tune to the culture you are in,” said Freeman.

Accept that it won’t be perfect. You’ll probably never have enough time for all of the stakeholders in your life. “You have to let it go and say I’m going to enjoy this ride because I only have one,” Freeman said.

Set the tone. Managers set the tone for their team and organization as role models. People are always watching what you do. By demonstrating that you are flexible and strive for balance (such as with work schedules, teleworking, family commitments, etc.), your team will know it’s okay to ask for those things, too.

Hire the right people. Then get out of their way. Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you and give them the space to do things their way, even it’s not the way you would do it. “It’s about empowerment; not micromanagement,” Freeman said.

Sessions such as this one that I moderated on successful women leaders are so critical for other women to participate in so that they can continue to learn the tips and strategies for being successful as women in business today. As Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, and author of “Lean In” has said “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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