All leaders and those who aspire to be leaders share a common trait: ambition.
Some corporate cultures profess to embrace gender equality in their leadership ranks yet, unwittingly or not, present significant obstacles to women who display ambitious traits. Choosing which industry to enter is important; working for the right organization is even more important for any woman wanting to reach her potential, make a difference and fulfill her ambition.
I am fortunate to work in banking, an industry that has made great strides in seeing women achieve successful management careers. Women now hold more than half of all middle management positions at Canada's six largest banks and almost a third of senior management positions.
This high participation rate for women in leadership roles is due in part to conscious actions financial institutions have taken in recent years to build representative work forces and to support professional development.
There is still much more for women to achieve – particularly at the highest executive levels – before we can say we've reached our full leadership potential. While banks continue to create an environment that encourages women to take on increasingly senior leadership positions, we risk reaching a plateau. It's imperative that we attract successive generations of talented, ambitious women into the industry to continue the journey toward true equality.
Here is my advice to help women interested in building their career in banking:
1. Develop a diverse skill set
Successful careers seldom offer a linear path. That's why it's vital to embrace opportunities to expand your range of skills. See the value in both lateral and vertical moves. For most women, or anyone for that matter, just starting their career it can be difficult for them to know what they want to do later in that career. When I began as a management trainee at Toronto-Dominion Bank, I saw it as an opportunity to get my foot in the door of a company that I respected.
Over time and as new opportunities presented themselves I was able to figure out what was 'in the art of the possible.' It's okay if you don't know exactly where you want to go at the beginning, especially when you consider that banking professionals tend to take on a new role every two to four years. If you start your career at 25, this means you could have 15 or 20 different roles before you retire, each one offering you an ever widening variety of skills.
2. Build a network
All leaders need to invest in relationships with people. Look to develop professional sponsors or mentors to give you advice when you need it. The mentors I've had have helped me make the right career decisions along the way. They encouraged me to be bold in embarking upon unique paths. That said though, important relationships extend well beyond sponsors and mentors.
Being a leader means knowing what your stakeholders want and need, even if they don't tell you directly. By taking the time to understand your boss, your team members and your colleagues, you can anticipate and act upon opportunities quickly and resolve issues before they turn into problems. Remember that it's not just your boss who has a say in your success; never underestimate the influence your colleagues, partners and peers can have at important points in your career development and success.
3. Help others to succeed
This is a big part of being a leader – and being seen to be a leader. Helping people to achieve what they maybe didn't think was even possible. Getting the most out of your team and the people around you will help you to succeed, too.
Even if you don't have a team to lead early in your career, consider offering to take on some volunteer work so you can demonstrate your leadership abilities and potential. It is also important to find ways to celebrate successes and recognize those around you. Make time for recognition every day.
4. Never underestimate the importance of EQ
IQ is vital though it is rarely the differentiator. Your ability to connect with people, communicate messages and inspire the will to win all comes down to EQ. People will remember how you made them feel; not always what you have said. Master connecting with people and great communications skills fast and early in your career – it never gets old.
5. Deal with tough issues head on
Don't sit on things. Be early and honest – people are watching and assessing your judgment. And if you need it, there are people who can help you tackle difficult issues – ask for help early. This is particularly important if you are having challenges with some of the people on your team. Get out in front of the problem and solve it. Never forget; everyone is watching to see what you do.
Regardless of the industry you choose, you'll need to strike a delicate balance in the early days of your career, demonstrating both patience and ambition. Showing what you are capable of and making it clear that you want to do more. That means always trying to exceed expectations, raising the bar and delivering for the job you want to be in, rather than settling for doing just what's required today. It's all about establishing your credibility; demonstrating good judgment, connecting with those around you, showing that you're ready for the next challenge and never, ever, settling for mediocrity.