NATIONAL REPORT — Women are just as likely as men to aspire to senior roles in their organizations, but they still face a myriad of obstacles and prejudices that their male counterparts don't. Women's career trajectories continue to be disproportionately affected by unequal pay, fewer promotions, microaggressions, gender bias, the so-called "motherhood penalty" and more, according to author, entrepreneur and former Fortune 500 executive Deb Boelkes.
While she recognizes that many organizations are proactively addressing these issues, Boelkes has a message she wants all women to hear: "We are our own best resource in closing the equity gap so that all women have a truly fair opportunity to succeed and lead."
"Why should the newest generation of emerging leaders enter their careers with little to no tribal knowledge of what it means to struggle, succeed and lead as a woman? Instead of climbing from the ground up, rising women should be standing on the shoulders of the women who came before them," said Boelkes, author of the new book, "Strong Suit: Leadership Success Secrets From Women on Top," for which she extensively interviewed seven women who made it to the top of the corporate world, the government, the military and beyond.
It's essential for women to mentor other women "as we all strive upward together," she pointed out, adding that most are eager to offer a hand to "their sisters still climbing the ladder."
"Strong Suit" includes several key insights to help rising women achieve their goals:
Your past helps mold who you are, but it doesn't have to define what you can accomplish. Your background does not determine whether you can make it to the top, Boelkes stressed. "This is something a lot of us know in theory, but have trouble internalizing. We carry limiting — and inaccurate — assumptions about what we have to offer and what our place in the world should be. Try to identify these beliefs and use them as a springboard for positive action," she advised.
Stop being sorry for asking questions and sharing your opinion. Many women tend to minimize themselves, usually unconsciously, according to Boelkes. They'll say things like, "Sorry, but I have a question" or "I could be wrong, but..." Sometimes they would rather not say anything than share an opinion that hasn't been thoroughly thought out and researched. She urges all women to remember: "You got to where you are because you are smart, qualified and capable. Others saw those things in you then, so continue to showcase them now."
"Executive" and "emotionless" aren't synonyms. As leader of a peer mentoring program for C-level women, Boelkes has met many who think that once they reach the top, they must be calm, collected, stoic, unemotional and mentally tough at all times. Instead of holding other people at arm's length, she encourages rising women to maintain friendships with other female leaders and build an inner circle where they can be candid and get support and authentic advice.
Leadership is not about your skills, it's about your people. New leaders especially get stuck in the mindset that their success hinges on the technical skills they were judged on prior to their promotion. However, Boelkes believes leadership isn't about how well you can do something, but rather how well you can develop, engage and motivate your team so that they can do the task. She says the first priority of a leader is assembling and empowering a great team, followed by removing any obstacles that stand in the way of their success.
If you choose to improve in one area, make it soft skills. Communication and relationship-management skills are what build a great culture, and Boelkes is adamant that a great culture is what leads to great metrics, not the other way around. She recommends starting out by treating people the way you'd want to be treated and consciously inspiring them to be their best. She's a proponent, too, of identifying role models and adopting their behaviors, attitudes and methods.
In "Strong Suit," Boelkes also talks about the need for all women to identify their own strong suits, explaining that a true strong suit is not just something you're good at; it should also bring you joy and tie into your purpose. "Knowing what makes you stand out can give you a big leg up and help you become the best version of yourself," she said.
Additionally, leveraging your strong suits and helping others do the same is akin to "a rising tide lifts all boats," Boelkes concluded. "I have seen firsthand how powerful it is when successful women advise, develop and support their sisters."