This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
I'm often asked what it takes to succeed in the workplace – particularly as a woman in financial services.
While the so-called glass ceiling remains an issue for women across the work force, we can be thankful that its impact continues to diminish. But we all have a role to play in breaking down the barriers that remain.
Women are often our own worst enemies and I have seen and experienced this first hand where women fail to take an active role in managing their careers, falling victim to preconceived ideas of how to get ahead.
That means avoiding the trap of keeping your head down and "doing the work." I've come across a number of women over the years who worked incredibly hard on the assumption that they would get noticed and be rewarded with a promotion. They would do all the right things that "tick the boxes" for success, but in the end it didn't lead to promotion and success. I've also seen this lead to self-criticism and doubt, which creates even more challenges.
Achievement in the work force simply isn't about ticking boxes and keeping your head down. You have to keep your head up, reach out and get noticed. Be bold, and ask questions. Find challenging work, and make sure the people around you know that you want to get ahead.
While times are indeed changing, I've noticed that men appear to be more comfortable engaging in this kind of self-marketing. The women I see who have succeeded are those who have been able to showcase their talent, get noticed, and expect more. They are the ones who make sure the people around them know their aspirations. They demand the roles they want.
All that said, women can still benefit from the support of those who have led the way. I've noticed a tendency for women to learn things a bit later on in their careers. Support from those who have come before them can help shorten that gap. I certainly had people help me throughout my career, so I make sure I pay it forward to anyone who asks for my advice. I think it's critical to pass on this benefit of experience and it's an important piece of the puzzle for helping women thrive.
Those of us who are in the work force now need to help those who follow to build confidence to seek out challenges and do new things. When I see a lack of confidence, I feel a responsibility to support those women and open their eyes to the possibilities that lie ahead. I challenge them to take risks, do things that scare them and share experiences with each other. Over time, it will lead to a cohort of younger role models.
For those of us in a position of authority over women just entering their careers, that does not mean going easy on them; nor does it mean being overly hard. It means being supportive and sharing the knowledge and experience we've acquired so far. We've all fallen down at some point in our careers. We've gotten up, dusted ourselves off, and moved forward. There is some good learning in this that can help others see what's possible. It's not all pretty and perfect and that's ok. That's life.
I've come across women in my career who have deliberately stepped back in order to avoid some of the problems they see in the lives of other executives. They might have seen a CEO getting a divorce, or senior executives missing too much time with their families. And that's all they see. They see choices that may not align with the choices they would make and they are afraid to go there.
Women need to know that we've all been there. We've made choices; those choices may lead to some regrets along the way, but they bring their own rewards as well. In short, we can "have it all," but fundamental to that is defining what "having it all" means for you. Figure out what makes you happy, and then define the balance of your life based on that and stick to it. Women are redefining boundaries and it's an exciting time to be calling the shots.
I know from my own experience and those of countless others I've met in my career that when you believe in yourself and persevere, you will have success. You just need to put your hand up to make it happen.
Julie Barker-Merz is president of BMO InvestorLine, the online trading division of Bank of Montreal (@BMO).