If we take a look at some of the most prominent female leaders, we can see that many of them share similar traits that have helped get them to the top of their professions.
So what does it mean to be an effective female leader? And how does one get into a position of power?
I’ve examined the lives of some of the top women across many industries—from Arianna Huffington, president of the Huffington Post Media Group, to Maria Eitel, CEO of the Nike Foundation, to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and others. Here are the characteristics they all share.
Effective role models
A recent CNN opinion piece about how to have more women like Sheryl Sandberg concludes that it is the prominence of such women that inspires others to be like them: “We can create more Sandbergs by surrounding ourselves with confident, outspoken women.” Sandberg herself actively works to encourage others by running a monthly salon with talks by inspirational women. The more role models we have across all industries, the more likely it is that the female leaders of the future will be inspired.
“Though successful women are often prone to credit luck for their success, it is mostly hard work and perseverance that brings women to the top of their field,” says Lucy P. Marcus, CEO, non-exec board director, prof at IE Business School, Reuters columnist and host of “In the Boardroom With Lucy Marcus,” in an article for LinkedIn.
No one is asking to be handed promotion on a plate. The women who have made it to the top have made it through sheer hard work and determination. But women who work as hard as their male colleagues need to be equally rewarded, and all too often this is still not the case.
Confidence can mean a world of difference between a woman who is able to live her dreams and one who is not—so often a talented woman is held back through lack of confidence. The former U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher was famous for her confidence and iron will—and for her slogan “The lady’s not for turning.”
In an article for the MBA@UNC, media pioneer Arianna Huffington cites lack of confidence as “a killer to success for women. In order to advance their careers, women need to be comfortable seeing themselves as qualified leaders and risk takers.”
Madeleine Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
Many of the current generation of women leaders have credited a good support network in their success, and are now active in encouraging the next generation of women in their field.
The MBA@UMC blog states that "Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and 'Change the Ratio' blogger Rachel Sklar are vocal about female inclusivity and encourage women to support each another at all levels."
With support like that, the future of female leadership looks positive.
Changing the mindset of what is the "right" career for a woman begins early. Women who have a good grounding in technology, math, science, and business—and who are encouraged to take those studies further—are more likely to become the business and political leaders of the future. It isn’t just the book knowledge that counts: Women need to know they can build a career that takes them all the way to the top.
Seventy percent of the business leaders interviewed by Forbes believed that education about technical fields starts in childhood. The article quotes Lydia Thomas, the retired CEO of Noblis and co-chair of the National Academy of Sciences: “We have to capture women at a very young age—after that it seems to be too late—because women are not getting the emphasis in school. We need to encourage parents to encourage their daughters.”
CNN recently stated that “as women, in many cases, the impulse to do something out of the norm of our peer group, like write an opinion piece or ask for a promotion, has simply never occurred to us. If it does, we don't act on it. Our girlfriends aren't doing it. Our female colleagues aren't doing it. Why should we?”
The article makes a great point: Peer group attitudes shape our perception of "normal." So as a successful woman, I believe that it is our duty to be visible, to change what is thought of as "normal." Many women at the top of their professions cite strong female family members, friends, or peers as a factor in their success, and it’s something they are passing on to their own children, friends, and colleagues.
Mentoring—at all levels
Mentoring is essential to encouraging the female leaders of the future: Identifying and overcoming obstacles to their career progression at the early stages can have a huge effect on their eventual success. This should start in school and be a part of every stage of a woman’s education and training. If you can identify opportunities and encourage women early on then they will be able to fulfill their potential throughout their careers. Some of the most prominent women had great mentors—and they are often now working as mentors to the next generation themselves.
In a Forbes article, Dana DiFerdinando, CIO of Arena Pharmaceuticals, credits her mentor at SAIC for part of her career’s success: “I think mentoring is critical and I actually had a great mentor at SAIC who had already achieved the highest level scientific position in SAIC. She was a physicist turned technologist and she really helped women.”
Everyone’s journey is different—and many are not easy. Hard work is the foundation of success, but the people and attitudes you surround yourself with, and the message you pass on to others, all contribute to a culture of female achievement that will take us into the future.
[Roots Image: CoolKengzz via Shutterstock]