10 Women In Leadership Share Their Secrets To Success

These women take responsibility for their successes and failures, and teach us all a thing or two about leadership along the way.

10 Women In Leadership Share Their Secrets To Success
[Image: Flickr user Andrés Nieto Porras]

If we want innovative results, we need leaders who aren’t afraid to think differently. And who aren’t afraid to lead differently.


The most successful leaders know all too well that their high-demand positions mean nothing if they can’t influence others to believe in their mission.

What’s their secret to effectively being on top? We asked 10 successful women leaders what they think most people don’t know about leadership. Here’s what they had to say:

Flickr user Reed Sturtevant

Be A “Deep Listener”

Katie Rae, managing director of TechStars Boston and founder of Project 11


Rae, who was named one of our most creative people in 2013, had to learn how to really listen because, as an investor, her wins and losses were dependent on her listening skills.

“When it’s a smaller team, you can rapidly make changes because you’re all sitting in the same room together, looking at each other,” she tells Fast Company. “As teams get bigger, I have to be very careful about the advice I give. If the founders ask me, I tell them my opinion, but as teams get bigger, the more I really have to listen.”

In a leadership position, Rae says you need to train yourself on “deep listening” so that you can really understand what’s going on. “You lead with much more true confidence when you understand how people around you–whether they agree or disagree with your decision–will react. In that way, you’ll be able to pull them along with you even if they don’t agree with you … by the way, this works in marriage too.”


Sometimes You Need to Just Go With Your Gut

Anne Fulenwider, editor-in-chief of Marie Claire

“Sometimes you just have to make a leap of faith. As I was moving up the ranks, sometimes I’d be in a meeting and think, ‘we really need a decision here,’ and realize a beat later it was me who had to make that decision. Leadership is about presenting confidence and decisiveness. Of course it’s best if this is how you’re really feeling at the moment but it’s possible–in fact necessary–to make decisions you’re not 100 percent sure of. The longer you do it the more natural going with your gut becomes. And then soon you start giving advice like ‘just go with your gut.’ “

Flickr user Anthony Quintano

Pay Attention to What You are doing Wrong

Rachel Sklar, founder of Change The Ratio and The


“There’s a lot of talk about being a born leader … having natural leadership. I think that’s a myth. My experience is that if you are not paying attention to the things you’re doing wrong, then you’re not evolving and learning. I would say that leadership is something that is learned. It can be learned and should be learned. Leadership is something you’re always honing and learning and reflecting to see ways you could have been better at it. Anyone who thinks they’re a natural leader is probably horrible to work with.”


Be Your Authentic Self

Danae Ringelmann, co-founder and CDO of Indiegogo

“Don’t be afraid to be you and own it. If you think being a leader is about having some agenda, it’s not. Being a leader is actually being completely with who you are and speaking from that place, giving feedback, sharing opinions from that place. That’s why people follow you.”


Ringelmann tells Fast Company she learned this lesson when changing roles at Indiegogo and realized that power is all about the ability to truly influence people and make an impact in their lives. “It doesn’t come from any title or position … a true leader is someone who is wholeheartedly willing to be their authentic self.”

Courtesy of Monif C.

Ask Questions

Monif Clarke, founder and CEO of Monif C. Plus Sizes

After a blockbuster year in 2013, Clarke noticed that her team wasn’t speaking up as much because they were constantly “nose down” working. That’s when she realized it was up to her to ask them what areas they thought needed improving in order to make their jobs easier and help the company continue growing.


“Leadership is asking a lot of questions. I’ve learned that between customers, employees and all our stakeholders, my number one job is asking [my team] a lot of questions so I can serve them. They are on the front lines dealing with customers or wearing our products and while I am steering the ship, they are the engine and the propellers. I have to be responsive to what they need and often people are too busy or bogged down to even articulate what they need.”

A lot of Leadership is a private journey

Jody Porowski, founder and CEO of Avelist

“Most acts of leadership happen behind closed doors. In that sense, a leader’s journey is actually quite private. It has to be. The conversations with an employee, the hard decisions at a board meeting, the thoughts in bed late at night. It’s counter-intuitive because we think of leaders as very public figures.”


“I think one of the biggest ways that I learned this lesson has been through personal relationships with other leaders. Specifically the relationships that have moved beyond business and into true friendship where there’s a certain level of trust and camaraderie,” she says.

“I remember one time in particular, I had just started to become friends with the leader of a popular startup. I was kind of in awe of this particular CEO and had just read a particular article about some of her glorious achievements. I remember talking to her soon after the article came out and she was talking about the people that she needed to lay off and some of the office drama. I saw a whole new side of her leadership based on how she handled those private matters. And I realized that those things that take up so much time and energy and emotion–and that really define us as leaders–are usually private situations.”

In good times and bad: be humble

Brooke Moreland, head of marketing at Gett and co-founder of Fashism


“I think to be a good leader, you really need to learn humility. To give credit to your subordinates when things go well and to shoulder the responsibility when things hit the fan. It’s hard, but I think the lack of ego is something that people respect and appreciate.”

Moreland tells Fast Company she learned this lesson when starting her company because no matter how much you want to deflect responsibility or assign blame when things go bad, ultimately, those at the top are responsible.

Listening is the biggest part of your job

Jessanne Collins, editor-in-chief of mental_floss magazine


“Leadership is mostly about listening. You can’t create a team that thrives if you can’t respond to what each member needs. They don’t always ask directly. And outwardly, you can’t break through the chatter in the marketplace if you can’t hear and respond directly to what the audience is asking for.”

Collins says that through observing leaders and being managed herself, she’s discovered that the best teams to work on were the ones with the best communicators–not just in term of articulating a vision, but also to respond to individual personalities on a team in effective ways.

Courtesy of Kathryn Finney

You don’t have to have all the answers

Kathryn Finney, founder and managing director of digitalundivided (DID)


“Most people think leaders are some sort of ‘all-knowing-beings,’ but in reality we often don’t know the answers. The difference is that leaders trust their instincts to lead them to an answer.”

Finney says that when her company had its first conference in 2012, she had no idea what to expect.

“No one had ever done a startup conference for black people before and there was really no model for us to follow. People thought I was crazy and told me so. But I did know that there was a disconnect between the tech startup world and my community. If my community was to participate in this new economy, we had to figure out a way to be involved and we had to be involved in a way that was organic to us. So I took a leap of faith–and $30,000 of my own money–to our first conference.”

Courtesy of Binta Niambi Brown

Real Leadership is about Service

Binta Niambi Brown, lawyer and Mossavar-Rahmani senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School

“Most people don’t realize that leadership is fundamentally about service, about a dying to self and loving others into their true potential. It isn’t about us personally. It isn’t about what we can get, or consume. It isn’t about elevating ourselves above others. It isn’t about ego. Leadership is about lowering ourselves such that the people who work with us, and our organizations can thrive in ways that create value (economic and social).”

“When I am serving I can’t help but to be compassionate. And when I am not, the tendency to become jaded, more callous, and less forgiving can take over. This has been one of my greatest observations since leaving my law practice. How ineffective business leaders are once they lose the capacity to put themselves to the side in favor of the common good.“


About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.


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