I always joke with my family that my career path to becoming a CEO can be traced back to my upbringing. As the youngest of four siblings, I had to learn how to ask for things and make my presence known at an early age. The trouble is, too many women, particularly those of us in notoriously male-led industries, see the C-Suite as a pipe dream.
It’s something we aspire to, perhaps even work towards, but not something we truly believe to be within reach. Everyday I see talented women who lean back, bite their tongues and second-guess their ideas – no matter how brilliant they may be. This, in my opinion, is one of our greatest pitfalls. There is absolutely no reason why women, who make up 47% of the workforce in the United States, cannot hold the equivalent number of top executive roles (as opposed to the current, dismal 14%). From the moment I realized I wanted my name to be followed by the title ‘CEO,’ I made a concrete list of steps that would get me there and today I encourage every woman with similar aspirations, regardless of the industry, to draw from these on her journey up the corporate ladder.
Prepare more than you have to
At first, it can be intimidating walking into a conference room filled with men in suits. You can feel like an outsider stepping into the boys’ club. But you can get over that by simply being over-prepared. Especially when you are first starting out as a CEO, make sure you are ready for that meeting. Do your research ahead of time, anticipate the next steps, walk in with an agenda — with questions and ideas around the topic at hand — and you’ll feel miles ahead of the curve.
Months before I ever walked through the door with my new title, I was having meetings with key people, looking at their business structure, outlining the areas that could be improved, and planning my first day in the office. You absolutely have to have an impact on day one, before you can start looking ahead, and doing your homework is sure to give you and your team a sense of assurance.
Be confident but don’t leave kindness at the door
There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and an even finer line between kindness and submission. If you’re going to excel in the workplace, it’s important to treat these lines with care. Manners matter, in the boardroom and beyond, so always be considerate and courteous of others – but don’t apologize for expressing your opinions, either. Show that you are a compassionate leader, but a leader no less. Even when you aren’t feeling your best, people are looking for confidence in you as their CEO – so if that means giving yourself a pep talk in the mirror or calling a confidant for encouragement, do it and don’t let your fears or inhibitions hold you back.
Bring something different to the table
At the end of the day, being the only woman in a room can be a greater opportunity than a challenge. We offer fresh perspectives, different insights and an intuition that most men cannot mimic – so seize this advantage. Accentuate what makes you different. And think about coming to every meeting fully prepared, by bringing a ‘unique gift’ – be it an insight or an idea – that will add value to the discussion and challenge others to do the same.
Ask yourself the right questions
I often reflect on a coffee meeting I had with a headhunter for my first CEO position. She grilled me for nearly two hours, asking very interesting, challenging questions, which in turn only made me realize how much I wanted the position. I also realized that we rarely ask ourselves what we’re good at and what we want to achieve – and verbalize it out loud.
We’re so caught up in the now, trying so hard to be brilliant at what we do, that we don’t take the time to stop and think, much less talk, about these things. So I encourage you to ask yourself hard questions about your true ambitions and keep yourself honest so you know and are clear when you are truly ready for that next step.
Believe in yourself
It may seem a cliché, but at the cornerstone of every strong leader is an even stronger sense of self-beliefs. So be sure to constantly remind yourself of your wit, your talent, your ability to succeed and lead – no matter how few women have attempted to do so in the past. In the words of J.M. Barrie, “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.”
By Lindsay Pattison, global CEO of Maxus.
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