Are you a woman in a leadership position? If you’re like a lot of women, that may be a new role for you. Many women have emerged as first-time candidates for public office this election season. Now the midterm elections have brought New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and many other women to elected office for the first time.
What should a woman in a newly powerful position do when she first gets there? “Exactly the same as a man would do,” seems like an easy answer, but it’s not good enough. “Although good leadership is good leadership, women have unique challenges because they’re women and men have different unique challenges,” says Wendy Capland, an executive coach who focuses on women in leadership, and bestselling author of Your Next Bold Move. Capland is my coach, and for the past couple of years, she’s been coaching me and I’ve been writing about it.
Here’s her advice for women taking on new leadership roles:
1. Find a sponsor–of either gender.
The very first job for nearly anyone in a new leadership role is to get to know everyone you’ll be working with–your peers and counterparts in other areas as well as the people reporting to you and the people above you in the hierarchy.
At the same time as you’re developing your internal and external network, you should be looking for a sponsor, Capland says. “A sponsor is different from a mentor,” she explains, adding that smart leadske sure to have both. “A mentor or coach can be either inside or outside your organization, but a sponsor will be somebody inside. They’re someone you can tell your career aspirations to, and your salary aspirations, and their role is to help you get there. Of course, what you desire has to be something they believe in and support.”
Your sponsor, she says, is the person who will speak up on your behalf when you’re not in the room. He or she will put your name forward for opportunities that you have no way of knowing about. Your sponsor will share contacts with you to help you succeed.
Research over the years has shown that women are significantly less likely than men to have sponsors in their organizations, although they may have multiple mentors. And, Capland says, when women do seek out sponsors, they are reputed to look for women to sponsor them, whereas men are equally likely to seek sponsors from either gender.
Women seeking out female sponsors has a nice sisters-in-it-together feel to it, but Capland says that women who only seek other women as sponsors risk holding themselves back. “It can be a career derailer for a woman leader because sometimes men hold most of the leadership positions and you’re limiting your support,” she says. “You may not have access to the executive suite if there are mostly men there.”
2. Make sure your voice heard.
Sadly, it’s an often observed phenomenon that in meetings and other settings–especially in groups that are mostly men–people seem to have trouble hearing female voices. “What we typically hear is often when a woman makes a suggestion at a mostly male table, it doesn’t get picked up right away and soon thereafter, a man says the same thing and everyone says, ‘What a great idea!'” Capland reports. When that happens the woman who made the suggestion originally faces an unpleasant choice: Either say nothing and let someone else get the credit for her idea, or speak up at the risk of seeming churlish, self-serving, and not a team player.
In that situation, it’s much better to have someone else remind the group who said what first. So much so that, in the Obama White House, a group of government women informally agreed to repeat and emphasize each others’ ideas in meetings, a practice called “amplification.”
If you’re a woman in a leadership or executive role, Capland suggests looking for some amplification for yourself, not necessarily from other women, but from your sponsor or someone else who seems interested in giving you support. “An amplifier is someone you talk to ahead of time and whom you ask to amplify your voice if it’s nor heard at the table,” she says. “So what would happen is the person you’ve selected would say, ‘You know, Sally just said that a few minutes ago. I want to make sure we track where we first heard this.'”
Your amplifier should be someone you already have a good relationship with, she adds. “It should be someone who knows you’re trying to have more executive presence and make more of an impact, and has shown an interest in helping you do that. You don’t walk into the room right before the meeting, find some guy and say, ‘I need some support.'”
Even if you have no amplifier, it’s important to make sure you’re heard on the issues you feel strongly about, Capland says. Especially if you’re new to the executive world, she recommends putting some time and effort into developing your executive presence so that you are more likely to command attention when you speak.
“It can be overwhelming for some women to be the only woman or one of a small number at a powerful table with other powerful people, mostly men,” she says. She once heard a woman describe being the only woman at the executive table during discussions of a possible business deal. “She said, ‘I feel pretty strongly we should not do this deal,’ and all the men said, ‘I think you’re wrong,'” Capland recalls. “She said, ‘I want to be heard loud and clear that this is a mistake and here’s my thinking as to why.'”
As she explained her reasoning, it became clear that a big part of the issue was timing–she would be much more in favor of the deal if they waited six months to do it. The company did wind up waiting six months as she recommended, and when it happened, the deal was a huge success. “She believes pretty strongly that if they had done the deal when first discussed, it would have caused a big drop in revenue,” Capland says.
3. Surround yourself with people who will help you be more confident.
Experts such as Capland have long flagged lack of confidence ast’ one of the ways women unknowingly can deal themselves out of career opportunities–for example by considering themselves unqualified for a role that they could in fact take on.
“I have a client who says she’s going to get an advanced degree because she feels like she doesn’t stack up with the men in her department,” Capland says. “She doesn’t think she’s done enough, and it’s not true.”
It’s easy to see why women tend to think this way–we live in a society that tells us from childhood on that we have to work harder than our male counterparts to achieve the same results. The likelihood is high that you’ve let this kind of thing affect your thinking, whether you want it to or not. You can fight back by taking the time and effort to build your own confidence. One of the best things you can do is make sure to spend time talking with people who believe in you and will frequently tell you how awesome you are. “Have regular conversations with your mentor and sponsor and coach,” Capland says. “Surround yourself with people who will remind you about your own capabilities.”