I have been an executive director for 10 years, a mother of three, and I have a lifetime of work ahead of me. Five key things have helped me get to where I am today and will continue to guide me in the future:
1. Use your gender to your advantage. Being the only woman in a room full of men makes you stand out, which makes it easier for people to take an interest in you and your cause. This can help you attract opportunities that the typical male CEO wouldn’t get. As a woman, you can also serve as an example for other potential leaders and ultimately begin to change the gender ratio in leadership.
It is important to note that men and women run organizations differently, and that’s a good thing. Leaders can learn from each other. My male counterparts inspire me to be more aggressive, while they often look to me for my management skills. In my experience, a presence of both male and female leaders at the table is important. So embrace what you’re bringing to the table as a woman.
2. Be resolute in your decision to be a working mother. I recently had an emergency coffee break with my directors. We were commiserating about how, for working mothers, things are either going really well or falling apart. One day you feel like you can do anything. The next, your kid is sick and crying, begging you not to go as you get in the car to leave for work. You feel like a terrible mother for leaving and a terrible ED for considering ditching your responsibilities. That is the roller coaster of being a working mother.
How do I cope? Some days are better than others. But the most important thing is to be resolute in your decision. You have to know in your heart, at your core, that working is the right decision for you. When your kid is crying as you leave for work, you better be absolutely certain about your choice.
If you have doubts, it’s just too easy to rationalize staying home for your child. Accept that there will be trade-offs. I wanted to go to my daughter’s medal ceremony for gymnastics the other day, but I had to make an important call. At my core I remember that I am still a good mother, and I am still a good executive director. It’s a process of constant soul-searching, but I know I made the right decision.
3. Being a mother can make you a better leader. If you don’t have a child to rush home to, you can afford to work 24/7. When you’re a mother, you have to get home at a certain time. You can’t work all night or all weekend, especially if you’re the primary caregiver. This forces you to be more efficient at work, cut out the unnecessary stuff and focus on the important things.
Being a mother also forces you to be more hands off at work, trust your team more and give them more freedom, which is ultimately good for everyone.
4. Embrace your strengths and weaknesses. A lot of people talk about whether women, as leaders in the workplace, should be as aggressive as men. My advice: don’t be anything you’re not.
Personally, it’s not in my nature to be aggressive. Asking me to be aggressive is asking me to not be who I am. A mentor once told me to evolve, grow, and learn new skills, but not to fundamentally change who you are. In my case, I realized that in order to be more aggressive, I really needed to be less afraid of people saying no. I worked on becoming more comfortable asking people for money and ultimately became more aggressive in fundraising, but by no means did I become an aggressive person.
It is important to evaluate (and re-evaluate) your weaknesses and work on overcoming them. But make sure you make a plan tailored to who you are. If you’re just not an aggressive person, you won’t become a shark overnight. Figure out what new skills you can learn and ways you can adapt to changing circumstances to become more aggressive in a way that makes sense for you.
Most importantly, be strong – not necessarily strong-armed, but strong-standing in what you believe.
5. Trust your team (and if you don’t, get a new team). A lot of my female colleagues, myself included, struggle with control. Especially as a founder, I tend to want things done a certain way and don’t trust others to do things exactly how I want them done. I began decentralizing responsibilities out of necessity as GFG expanded. I realized that if I kept running both GFG’s operations and fundraising, we would flounder.
So, over a year ago I hired our first COO. I needed to realize that I wasn’t good at everything. I looked for people who would complement my skills and compensate for my weaknesses.
When working with a team, keep your eye on the prize. Focus on the final product and don’t get nit-picky about the process. Everyone has different processes, but what matters is that you’re on the same page about the deliverable. You can’t micromanage every step of the way – you have to step back and trust your team. Trust me, it can be very liberating.
Melissa Kushner is the Founder & Executive Director of www.goodsforgood.org. She runs offices in New York City and Lilongwe, Malawi where her small team runs programs with big impact. goods for good supports over 70,000 orphans and children in need. goods for good provides goods and build businesses at community centers, Malawi’s grassroots and sustainable solution to the orphan crisis.
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