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When Judith Humphrey founded her Toronto-based executive coaching service 25 years ago in leadership communications, most of the clients were men. Over the years, more women have entered leadership positions and as she has worked with them she realized they were generally quite different from the men. They were hesitant to embrace the speaking opportunities before them – "reluctant to take the stage and be present in a confident way," as she says in an interview.

Sure, they're usually physically present at the meetings (although, she stresses, more likely than men to beg off in order to get other important work done, forestalling opportunities to be seen and heard). But they are often quiet and not confident they have anything to contribute – and wary of getting caught up in a tense back-and-forth.

"Taking the stage involves speaking up, being forthright, expressing your viewpoint in meetings. It means not pulling back when challenged or when your inner voice seeks to undermine you. It means accepting praise for a job well done, rather than saying, 'It was nothing,' or 'my team did it.' It means stepping up to whatever opportunity presents itself and having the strength to say, 'Here is what I believe.' It also means putting yourself forward for leadership roles or more senior positions, even though you might not feel you are fully qualified," she writes in her new book, Taking the Stage.

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She argues that taking the stage is the most important thing women can do to advance. They must do it mentally, verbally, vocally, and physically. What trips them up is mindset. Their inner voice holds them back – she calls it the inner crow, since it offers a loud, cawing sound and the negativity of its namesake. Women need to accept that they deserve the spotlight, seize the opportunities to shine, and not quickly retreat to the wings when complications occur.

Indeed, she warns that women are more confident in the wings, supporting others, while men welcome their centre stage moments. "At times women take the stage but even then tend to choose secondary roles. They may speak up at a meeting but add to what someone says rather than driving to a conclusion," she says in the interview.

Besides developing a centre stage mindset, you must:

Speak up confidently

Women tend to feel more confident listening or responding. That's not a centre stage behaviour. Nor are tentative phrases like "I have something of an idea," or "I'm not sure but let me throw this out." Listen to the men in meetings, who invariably are saying, "Here's my point" – clearly and forcefully. Speaking up requires listening carefully – not just to other speakers but to yourself. Consider how you feel about what's being discussed, and what you can say that might move things ahead. "The most difficult stumbling block is women feel they won't be liked and they want to be liked," she says. Get over it, as men do. Force yourself to speak up at least once in every meeting to build a sense that that's a natural behaviour.

Promote yourself

Women need to toot their own horn but in a sensible fashion. You can't be saying me-me-me all the time. Couch what you have accomplished in the context of how it helps the organization and others in the room. She recommends regularly writing down your successes – what you delivered for the company and what your team accomplished as a result of your leadership. The sheer act of writing helps to silence the inner crow and the substance can be wielded when chances come up to share your brilliance.

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Be courageous

Courage is not talked about in a corporate context but she feels it's powerful. "If women find the courage to speak up and take their place in the boy's club it changes the dynamics between men and women," she says. "Women will no longer be outside, in the wings, if they show courage." The first step in courage might well be putting your hand up to speak. Next, challenging others or finding the courage to take on a new role. Think of every meeting as an opportunity to have your voice heard and muster the nerve to speak up.

Hold your ground

When women are challenged in the natural give-and-take of meetings they feel uncomfortable. They must learn to hold their ground in such tense moments. They must get to the point faster – as men are more likely to do – but also when they need more time they should confidently signal that requirement because the point they are making is worth it. They also need to handle interruptions more deftly: "Women have to learn to not be violated if interrupted," she advises. And when you feel your idea was stolen by a man, she urges you to consider that you may have made the point too meekly and the man is actually helping by keeping the idea alive.

All the world's a stage. And women should be at the centre – not in the wings.

Editor's note: A Monday Report on Business feature on women in leadership incorrectly spelled the name of the founder of an executive coaching service. She is Judith Humphrey, not Humphreys as published.

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Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail

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