Leadership doesn’t begin when you’ve made it to the top of an organization. It’s something you display every day, throughout your career and personal life. Rather than thinking of leadership as something we achieve once we get to the top of a company, we should think of it as a skill that enables us to get to get there.
On Monday, the financial services consulting firm Capco celebrated International Women’s Day with a luncheon honoring women and leadership. It can be difficult to remember – especially for young women – just how far we have come in only a few decades. In the 1960s, as Stephanie Koontz wrote last month in the New York Times, “most Americans did not yet believe that gender equality was possible or even desirable.”
Fast forward fifty years and we are – at least on some measures like educational attainment and personal health – approaching equality. Ismail Amla, Partner and CEO for North America at Capco, explained that he feels that equality means, “My daughter who is 16 years old should have the same sort of opportunities as her brothers, even though the same opportunities would not have been afforded her mother only one generation ago.”
But, he continued, at the top of companies, we’re not even close. He cited Catalyst data revealing that in the Fortune 500, only about 14 percent of senior executives are women, and only four percent of CEOs are women. “There is still lots to address,” he continued. “Do we create an environment where women are leaders? How can I, as a CEO, say that women at Capco have the same opportunities as men?”
Corporate executives, both male and female, must ensure that their companies are authorizing and encouraging women to lead – that when women display leadership qualities, they are recognized and rewarded, rather than encouraged to fade into the background.
Leadership and Authenticity
Marcia Wakeman, Banking Partner at Capco said, “There’s a Chinese Proverb that women hold up half the sky. Can you imagine if in the financial services industry, we had that opportunity to have that many join us?”
It can be difficult to succeed in an industry where you are different than the majority, she continued, and when those around you don’t expect you to succeed because of your gender. But that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice your personal style or authenticity to fit in. Wakeman shared a personal experience that proved to her the importance of staying authentic to her own values. “It’s about finding your voice.”
“I can be fairly reserved – I tend to like to listen, to absorb, and to synthesize my thoughts before I speak. When I speak, I want it to be meaningful, I want it to be direct, and I want to be heard.”
That style isn’t always the norm in her field, she continued. And she recalled a time when she was leading an event for a client who expressed doubts about whether she would be able to handle it. Afterward, he approached her and said he had wondered whether she would be able to control the group and lead it forward, and was impressed when she succeeded. “The president of the bank said, ‘At the beginning I just didn’t know if you had it in you to lead, but you did.”
More than anything, Wakeman’s story shows how far we still have to go. It’s unfair that women have to fight against the tide of public opinion on whether we can be leaders. But we still do, and we have to do it throughout our careers. When women lead authentically, they are more successful – and what’s more, they can change the position of others who would otherwise be standing in the way of women’s advancement.
“Find your voice. Find your place. Don’t try to mimic others,” Wakeman said. “Be yourself.”
Also at the event, Carol Frohlinger, Managing Director of Negotiating Women Inc. and co-author of Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It, encouraged women to hone their negotiation skills in order to push for more leadership opportunities. She explained that negotiation is a leadership skills women should work to develop throughout their careers. “Negotiation is a critical career skill and it’s also a critical life skill. Negotiation is also a leadership skill. A leader does not have to occupy the corner office and a leader does not have to have gray hair. A leader does not have to have positional power. You can lead from wherever you are.”
Being a leader means being true to yourself and standing up for your values – and learning to negotiate better can enable women to this. At the same time, companies have a responsibility to develop a culture where women are not held back for being authentic.