Leadership Lessons from Powerful Women—For Everyone

How can women succeed in the workplace? It’s a big question, but boy does the Internet have the answer(s). One needs only to Google the phrase “women success advice,” or some variation of it, to find countless advice-packed listicles and excerpts from Lean In, all purporting to guide women to the top of any given field.

Here’s a better question, though: Why do we focus only giving women advice for getting ahead? Isn’t useful leadership advice helpful for…everyone? Some issues, like negotiating salary, aging in the workplace and workaholism, which we’ve addressed in the past, are not unique to only women.

Women and men certainly do face different challenges across industries, and many of those issues are unique to female professionals; the need for tailored advice still exists because the playing field isn’t yet even. However, as women come to occupy executive roles in every profession and grow as a proportion of the workforce, there’s no denying the abundance of wisdom about how to get women in leadership positions is more important than ever.

Executives could use advice from powerful women about how to lead once they’ve leaned in—and that guidance shouldn’t be limited to advising women. Men could stand to learn a thing or two from women who’ve taken charge.

Do it yourself—but don’t be afraid to delegate

“Succeeding” and “leading” are two different things, and when it comes to women in the workplace, there’s often more focus on how to achieve the former without much attention to the role leadership plays in accomplishing any success. But leadership is the bedrock of any success story, whatever that success may be, and it can be cultivated like any other good habit. Plenty of powerful women have already demonstrated how it’s done.

Whether they have made the observation themselves or not, there is one thing the most accomplished female leaders have in common: They do the work themselves, but they don’t do it alone. Being successful requires putting in time and effort, but being a leader requires a team. Building that team can make all the difference, and starts with recognizing one’s own limitations.

One thing to consider when hiring is to “be keenly aware of your strengths and weaknesses and build your team to complement those things,” according to Sian Morson, founder and CEO of Kollective Mobile. Female leaders should ask themselves: What am I capable of, and what do I know someone else can do better? Additionally, and harder to confront, is the question of what makes you uncomfortable—how will you overcome that obstacle?

“I realized in all the cases where I was happy with the decision I made, there were two common threads,” Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo!, said. “Surround myself with the smartest people who challenge you to think about things in new ways, and do something you are not ready to do so you can learn the most.”

Forget about being liked

Studies have shown one of the biggest obstacles any woman faces in the workplace is one that doesn’t so often apply to men: Whether others perceive her as likable. Women who negotiate, take charge or are otherwise assertive in their roles—in other words, women who behave like their successful male counterparts—are routinely deemed “aggressive” or “brusque,” perceptions that can hold them back instead of propelling them forward. Male executives do not have to think about this issue as much, so they do not—which is worth emulating, with some adjustments female executives have demonstrated.

The negative correlation between women’s success and how well they’re received in the workplace—or the “likeability penalty,” as Sheryl Sandberg identified it in Lean In—doesn’t hold working women back entirely. Sandberg, for one, has gotten pretty far; so has Hillary Clinton, despite near-constant public debate about whether voters would want to get a drink with her. These women haven’t allowed their perceived likeability to dictate their leadership styles, but they’ve also taken more restrained approaches to taking charge that rely less on the outwardly aggressive pursuit of their goals and more on utilizing the whole team.

Longstanding gender bias in the workforce and the culture aren’t going away overnight, and neither is the likeability penalty. So maybe leadership requires paying attention to neither. In fact, Deborah Gruenfeld, a researcher at Stanford University, has found ignoring the likeability issue can open opportunities for women to be better leaders, according to Alison Dahl Crossley.

“Too much focus on navigating the likeability penalty may limit women’s attention to the actions required to lead,” Crossley wrote. “The likeability penalty is only one aspect of the leadership conversation, and [Gruenfeld] encourages women to target what they can control: to be more confident in their abilities and leadership strengths. Instead of focusing on likability, women can find new ways to be successful as leaders, such as sharing what they know, ‘but in a way that is generous to the group.’”

None of that is to say leaders should try to be overly assertive or push others out of the way. The real advice here is to show up for work as yourself—which means asking for what you deserve, yes, but also listening, being inclusive, and keeping the interests of others in mind, all characteristics more common to female executives.

Pay it forward and say thank you

For all the talk of “natural born leaders,” most leaders learn to lead somewhere—or, rather, from someone else. A recurring theme in interviews with successful women—and in all those guides to success for professionals who hope to join their ranks—is a mention of mentors.

“Along with mentors, seek out people who are willing to help you get closer to finding out what your strengths and talents are. Look for role models early in your career. Who are the successful women in your organization? How do they communicate, behave, manage and inspire others? What do they do that helps them to position themselves for success?” Christine Power, president and CEO of Capital District Health Authority, has advised.

Being a leader means being a mentor too. Take time for small gestures. Have mentors and be a mentor. Recognize that those relationships go both ways and that you have something to offer…then offer it. Paying it forward works hand-in-hand with networking and maintaining relationships. Female executives tend to preach more about nurturing professional connections, a helpful tool for any leader. If you stay connected, you can be more aware of how you can assist others.


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