Gender equality is more than a notion. It’s one thing for corporate America to change its mind about the role of women in high-level leadership positions. That takes commitment, culture change, and accountability. It’s another thing entirely to actively and intentionally prepare women to lead in a way that leverages their unique abilities.
I recently sat on an executive panel for the opening session of Rising Stars, the Network of Executive Women’s new emerging leaders program. The Network of Executive Women is the retail and consumer goods industry’s largest learning and leadership community, representing 10,000 members, 750 companies, 105 national partners and 20 regions in the U.S. and Canada. The program is a first of its kind, aiming to connect, inform, and inspire a diverse group of emerging women leaders beyond an “event.” Over 100 middle managers from 49 companies gathered in New Orleans to begin a six-month engagement that will provide capability assessment and development, personal coaching, monthly webinars, and opportunities to build relationships with executives in their field. NEW’s kickoff for its inaugural Rising Stars class was quite the experience, and the energy in the room – which increased as the day progressed – was contagious.
I’ve spoken at leadership events before, of course. Every time I do, I leave feeling energized and more committed to helping women leaders rise through the middle.
This time, though, I left with something else. HOPE.
Every leader who aspires to reach his or her full potential needs a healthy balance of information and inspiration. Here are five reasons why I’m hopeful Rising Stars will help drive gender equality in the retail and consumer goods industry.
The women leaders fortunate enough to participate in this program will learn – not by instruction, but by experience – what happens when women band together to support one another. In partnership, we learn faster, grow stronger, and make a more profound impact on our companies and the industry. Because the class is divided into smaller learning groups, the women will have a chance to build deeper connections with each other across companies. As we know, relationships are the cornerstone of advancement, not only because they open doors to opportunity, but also because they fortify us along the way.
The first module in the program was focused on personal branding. As our executive panelists discussed, leadership branding is less about a speech you share with others than an exercise to clarify who you are and what you meaningfully contribute. Self-awareness, the key to emotional intelligence and a first step on the road to a fulfilling career, is paramount to our success. Not only did the participants receive a traditional 360 feedback survey, they also took an innovative brand-centric assessment called the Fascination Advantage – a tool to help leaders understand how the world sees them, with pointers for using perceptions to lead more effectively.
3. BUILT-IN ADVOCACY
These women will get to know each other, yes, but they also have an opportunity to build relationships with the executives engaged in the program. In essence, they’ve been gifted a springboard to a power network. This network offers external inspiration, enhanced business perspective, and encouragement from those who have been where they desire to go. (Exhibit A: 100 women were offered my personal email address. Yes, that happened!)
Lack of confidence remains a driving factor of leadership stagnation for women in corporate America. We sometimes hold ourselves to unrealistic standards, and when we fall short, self-doubt creeps in and wreaks havoc on our state of mind. One participant I spoke to in the morning hesitated to own her differentiated value, even as her colleagues praised her and her skills. By the end of the day, she expressed excitement about the chance to tout those skills in an upcoming board meeting. In one day, her self-perception shifted from lukewarm to hot, and she immediately began to align her expectations with her newfound confidence. What power! I trust the next six months will teach these women to wield their power in new ways.
5. A HEAD START
We don’t have to wait until we’re in the latter stages of our careers to claim our leadership edge. I know many women who’ve yet to discover who they are professionally, what they uniquely contribute, and how to add value for themselves and their companies. We can and should learn what it takes to get ahead earlier, if getting ahead is what we want. There are fundamental truths every aspiring leader should know. Working hard is not enough. You MUST network beyond your direct supervisor, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Don’t ride the middle – take a position. (Shout-out to Amie Best of SC Johnson for that nugget!) At the same time, there are ideas we should reject, for the good of our own careers and gender equality. For instance, you don’t have to act like a man to get ahead. (Why be redundant?) You can have a family and a career. (Your work serves your life, not the other way around.) The sooner we understand which “rules” to embrace and which to challenge, the better.
I’m genuinely excited for the Rising Stars participants. They are well positioned to make a difference for themselves, those they lead, and the companies who have smartly chosen to invest in their development. I look forward to continuing to participate in a program committed to transforming motivational speech into aspirational guidance. I’m ready for the journey. I know they are, too.
To learn more about Rising Stars, visit http://www.newonline.org/mpage/risingstars.
For more in-depth career guidance, order Tara Jaye Frank’s book Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose.