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I was at a women's networking event recently when, over the din of table talk about family and vacation plans, I heard a disheartening statistic from the speaker: Only 14 per cent of top leadership posts in major companies are held by women.
Thinking about the slow pace of women's advancement to senior roles – and how to break the logjam of female managers vying for the corner office – I remembered two seemingly unconnected events that have book-ended my own career.
First story: Not long ago, amidst the daily challenges of driving operational transformation in the tradition-steeped legal sector, one of my staffers told me that, "You're a breath of fresh air because you express yourself how you want, rather than talk, walk and dress like the men." I accepted the compliment, without admitting that I spent the first decade of my career wearing the same square-shouldered, navy jackets as the guys.
Second story: Years ago, I remember working for a boss who treated me well and respected my talents. However, I was stunned when he asked me to review a shortlist of candidates for the company CEO role without encouraging me to apply. After gathering my thoughts, and discussing the issue with a colleague and friend, I marched back into his office and told him that, "If you don't consider me for the role, then I should leave."
While each of us must follow our own career plan, those two episodes hint at techniques that worked for me, which may be lacking in other women's efforts to scale the corporate ladder:
Be yourself – earn respect
At some point I realized that, as the only woman in the room, I was not going to get ahead by trying to shout over the men or imitate the guys' modus operandi. I had to be myself, including the way I speak or dress, and find ways to express my own thoughts and leadership style. With a bit of creative thinking, I got the guys' attention. And by being myself, rather than acting like someone else expected, I've earned staff respect and trust, which is critical to achieving team results.
Accept and apply your natural strengths
What makes a woman different from a room full of male colleagues? In many cases, women have natural strengths, embedded over centuries as mothers and caregivers, which give them distinct "quiet leadership" skills. They are often excellent communicators, facilitators and can be more empathetic and adaptable to change. Many women down-play these key leadership qualities, when they should actually embrace and apply those unique skills to drive business results.
It's a great step that women are joining professional and networking groups, however I frequently see two problems when women participate. They may spend too much time talking about personal issues, rather than using the event as a strategic opportunity to build contacts. Also, with so few senior female role models, we can't just gather with other women in order to get ahead. We must also meet senior men whose own connections and experiences make them potential mentors and career sponsors. Women need to network more often with men, and network like men, with a clear focus on their goals.
Ask for help
When women feel isolated in a male-dominated workplace, it's natural to think that, "I have to do this alone." Instead, build professional relationships, find allies among the men, and don't be afraid to ask for their advice. By being honest and clear, you can ask trusted contacts things like, "Can you connect me with someone in your network?" "Can you help me overcome this challenge?" or "This is my goal – How do you think I can get there?" This straightforward approach works well for men, so women need to be as direct and pragmatic.
Speak up – take a risk
Finally, although women can be terrific, quiet leaders, sometimes you have to speak up to declare your needs or defend your turf. That's what I did when my boss almost overlooked me for that promotion. And my move paid off: He added me to the candidates' pool and I was later chosen for the job.
Like each of the tactics mentioned above, my sudden outspokenness with my boss involved some calculated risk. That's not always a comfortable action, but if women want to finally reach the leadership ranks, we need to take more chances and learn from the guys, rather than trying to be one of the guys.
Tracie Crook, an experience change strategist, is chief operating officer at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, a national law firm based in Toronto.