Silicon Valley corporations are losing women in mid-career at a higher rate than ever before. On average, they are losing approximately 1 out of 4 mid-level female managers – three times the rate they are losing men, according to Cindy Solomon, CEO of Cindy Solomon & Associates, a best-selling author and frequent keynote speaker at Forté events.
The attrition is a result of women being told they lack leadership presence. During the March women-lead webinar, “Courageous Presence: Building Your Career and Your Brand with Conscious Action,” Cindy asked, “Why is this happening? What makes someone a great leader? What skills make people successful? What holds women back from being the exceptional leaders they can be?”
What is courageous presence?
Cindy believe success for women has to do with a concept she calls “courageous presence,” which she says is “your true key competitive differentiator.” The good news is that it is “completely false that you are born with” courage, she says, adding that “it is simply another skill that you can choose to put into your toolbox.” But what is it exactly?
Cindy used an analogy to describe courageous presence. The first violinist in an orchestra manages the tactical aspects of a performance before the conductor takes the reins once the music begins and leads the performers. When someone chooses to move away from the tactician role of first violinist to the more strategic role of a conductor, she experiences what Cindy calls “a pivotal transformation moment.” It is at this moment when courageous presence is born.
Cindy described the four essential skills that are necessary to develop courageous presence.
Clarity of strength
Getting crystal clear about what your strengths are is vital. Clarity of strength comprises three elements:
Men are also more comfortable than women in describing and sharing their strengths and connecting them to business outcomes. In other words, they know what they are good at and how it helps the business. Women need to tie their specific skills to the business outcomes.
Think about the secret sauce you bring to the organization. Cindy recommends thinking back to a time when you were at your very best and what you contributed. If you don’t know, she suggests asking friends or work colleagues.
According to Cindy, 96% of women view sharing their strengths as “bragging” while very few men do. “Culturally women have been taught that sharing strengths out loud is bragging,” Cindy said.
It is important to be able to share strengths once you are clear about what they are and relate them to the business. Cindy said this is a similar concept to “creating a branding statement.” Cindy created her own – the “fixer” – which she used every time she met new people. It stuck because people remembered that about her.
Build on Them
Cindy suggests looking for ways to build on skills that are not as strong. One way to do that is to find “micro-mentors.” She used as an example a time when she needed to understand finance better and asked a chief financial officer for 15 minutes of his time. He agreed, and it was a simple, effective way to learn key new skills.
Connections are the priority
As women continue to move up the ladder, relationships and connections – both internal and external –“are vitally important because that is how stuff gets done in companies,” Cindy said.
She suggests finding the people who make your job easier. For example, Cindy reached out to a client’s head of procurement because she wanted to understand how to be a better vendor. He agreed, and “Now we have a relationship and he gave me five tips to zoom through procurement,” she said.
To develop stronger relationships, Cindy suggests starting small. Ask who the people are within your organization who get things done. Sit down with them and ask how they do it.
Credibility through communication
While the ability to concisely present yourself in front of any audience is important, there are other ways of communicating that may diminish your impact. Cindy mentioned verbal tics – she says “right” a lot –and she recommended joining Toastmasters or getting an individual coach. Do whatever you need to because “idiosyncrasies hurt your credibility,” she said.
Cindy also recommends that women stop:
- Raising hands in meetings. “Have you ever seen a guy do that?” she asked.
- Apologizing for giving an opinion.
- Asking permission.
Instead Cindy suggests that women lead with the punch line. For example, “Lean forward and say: Jim, I have to disagree with you and here’s why…,” she said.
Your physical presence matters, too – the way you sit, how you dress, the amount of things you have on your desk or in a meeting.
Cindy underscored the importance of always introducing yourself with full name and title, or a description of why you are in a meeting. If we don’t take this critical step, Cindy says, “we become invisible to men.”
Micro mentoring “really is the secret to confidence,” Cindy said. Like the examples she cited earlier – asking the CFO and head of procurement for 15 minutes of their time to better understand unfamiliar concepts – micro mentoring provides knowledge and builds stronger relationships.
If you approach a person by acknowledging their expertise and ask for a finite amount of time, a request is rarely declined. Plus, it is a win-win.
Tying it all together
“It takes all four steps to create courageous presence,” Cindy said. “It is one thing to know these things, but you have to go after them in a proactive way and prioritize the skills you want.” It takes initiative and hard work; in other words, it takes courage.
You have to go “above and beyond what you have on your plate, but if you are able to do it, you really will be successful,” she concluded.
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