As the nation’s workforce continues to diversify, so do the executive suites in organizations across all industries. While it’s been a slow process, women now have more opportunities than ever to hold positions in the upper reaches of the organizational chart.
Getting there requires a unique blend of important skills. Women in leadership particularly benefit from developing expertise in seven areas: emotional intelligence, confidence, willingness, adaptability, empathy, growth mindset and trust.
Honing skills as a leader vastly increases an individual’s chance of success and allows them to maximize their opportunities to lead people, set strategic goals and develop plans to achieve those goals.
How Skills Benefit Women in Leadership
On their own, each one of the following skills makes a leader better at what they do. Taken together, they provide a strong foundation for successful women in leadership.
Emotional intelligence sometimes referred to as emotional EQ, involves a leader understanding their own emotions and empathizing with the emotions of others. Those with high emotional intelligence demonstrate kindness and care to those around them. Care and kindness increasingly are seen as essential components of successful leadership, according to women leaders interviewed by The International Educator (TIE).
Kara Schillaci, a global learning, talent, and organizational development leader and instructor in SMU’s Women in Leadership: Influence and Impact program, said it’s “paramount for a leader to be able to step back and recognize where they and others are coming from to lead effectively.” She said as part of the program, aspiring women in leadership learn about common emotions, how to recognize them, and how to move forward so they can “show up with confidence.”
Confidence does not mean exhibiting arrogance, hubris or self-importance. Rather, a confident leader understands the value of their own abilities, always remains open to learning more, and leverages the resources they have around them to solve challenges. Confident women in leadership guide their teams with optimism, reducing the influence of negative emotions such as fear and anxiety.
One of the keys to building confidence is to recognize when things go well. By acknowledging success, leaders build confidence in their own skills and trust in those around them. For some women, however, achieving confidence is difficult. Statistics show a “confidence gap” persists between men and women early in their careers, with women not reaching the same level of self-reported confidence as men until age 40, a study reported by The Business Journals. For aspiring leaders, it’s important to close that gap as early as possible.
In this context, willingness refers to the quality of being able and ready to take action, either on a job task or to boost an aspiring leader’s career (they often are one and the same). However, it requires walking a fine line between a positive attitude of willingness and the bad habit of becoming too willing to take on every task. The latter can lead to women getting stuck with thankless tasks and losing control of their career trajectory.
Women also face more challenges in moving up the corporate ladder and must ask for what they want, as well as taking action to pursue their goals. Research in McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace report found that women increasingly are willing to demand more from their employers in terms of support for employee well-being and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. They also have demonstrated a growing willingness to switch jobs, even if requires leaving their current company.
Thanks to ever-evolving technology and a global marketplace, women in leadership must contend with a fast-paced, constantly changing workplace. Thriving in such an environment requires adaptability, including the ability to learn about new technologies, alternative approaches to working and diverse cultures.
This is an area where people often get in their own way. Getting locked into concepts about how to accomplish work, as well as their own beliefs and expectations of others, can hold women back from achieving their leadership goals. Successful leaders maintain flexibility, allowing them to adapt communication practices and ways of thinking based on the needs of the people around them and the specific challenges they face. They strive to move past a binary way of thinking (one path is right, the other wrong) and seek to view every issue from multiple perspectives.
Empathy is one of the most important aspects of emotional intelligence and is worth honing as a skill of its own. The most basic definition of empathy is the ability to recognize the emotions of others and share those feelings. For women in leadership, empathy goes beyond this. The most successful leaders consistently view workplace issues from the perspective of the other person and work to understand their feelings, thoughts and experiences. It’s a continuous effort, not something practiced only from time to time.
By building empathy for others, women leaders create stronger relationships with team members. Some companies now offer empathy training as more business leaders come to understand the critical nature of empathy in leadership. The Forbes Coaches Council offers ways to develop empathy.
- Leaders should attend to their own basic needs first, which allows them the ability to offer empathy to others
- Make others feel heard by asking clarifying questions
- Commit to continuous learning
- Become more aware of other people’s perspectives
- Speak to people in person rather than communicating only through email and other digital channels
- Contribute to a culture that focuses less on rewarding transactional relationships and more on encouraging collaboration and teamwork
Not every leader comes into their position with a growth mindset, but the most successful leaders work hard to develop one. The benefits of practicing a growth mindset eventually permeate every action taken by a leader and significantly influence their approach to leadership. Having a growth mindset is especially important during times of change, allowing leaders to focus on looking forward rather than relying on the past for stability. The best leaders take lessons learned from the past and find a way to move on and grow.
Another key component of a growth mindset, as described by motivation and mindset researcher Dr. Carol Dweck in the SMU Women in Leadership: Influence and Impact program is to work at reframing mistakes as lessons learned that make people better at what they do and allow them to grow. The opposite is a fixed mindset that does not learn and grow. These different mindsets manifest in many ways.
- A fixed mindset leads to a person thinking they can’t handle change, while a growth mindset welcomes change.
- A fixed mindset dislikes tasks that require a great deal of effort, while a growth mindset welcomes such tasks as a chance to grow.
- A fixed mindset feels threatened by the success of others, while a growth mindset feels motivated by others’ success and applauds their accomplishments.
- A fixed mindset focuses on how well they accomplished a task, but a growth mindset focuses on how much they learned from a task.
Every relationship revolves around trust. Customers trust retailers to offer products that work as advertised. Patients trust healthcare professionals to recommend the right treatment. Students trust teachers, families trust financial planners, and airplane passengers trust pilots. Trust is the core of every relationship, including those between leaders and their teams.
For women in leadership, one of the biggest areas of trust is in the mentoring relationship, which is often key to women advancing in their careers. Building trust at the individual level is critical to creating interpersonal psychological safety, allowing individuals to be vulnerable to the actions of others (in this case, mentors or team leaders) with the belief they will conduct a specific action with good intentions. This opens the doors to people openly sharing ideas, thoughts and feelings.
One of the most important aspects of trust is that it is not about the leader. Instead, it is about empowering others through the leader’s presence, consistency and trustworthiness. The impact of such a leader is strong enough for it to continue even when the leader is absent. Women in leadership create a culture that allows their team members to fully realize their potential.
Professionals who enroll in SMU’s online Women in Leadership: Influence and Impact certificate program will learn about these skills as well as other factors that can influence their success as leaders. Taught by five female industry practitioners, the Women in Leadership program prepares current and aspiring leaders for the real-world challenges women face in the modern workplace and teaches them how to confidently lead with influence and impact.