Life without ceilings: Lessons on women in leadership
How to avoid letting barriers define your career
How to avoid letting barriers define your career
By Margie Simmons, senior vice president, Detroit, Michigan
I’ve come to realize, as a woman in the business world, that the metaphor “glass ceiling” is a double-edged sword.
Thankfully, we live in a time when equity, diversity and inclusion is part of the conversation. But I’m continually reminding myself—and the aspiring young women I’ve met and mentored—that It’s not a physical barrier. To a certain extent, there is the danger of falling back on the metaphor as an excuse, “I’ll never make it because …”
In my business (architectural design and engineering) we don’t believe in being held back, defined, or defeated by barriers—physical or otherwise. We love creating structures that go beyond what others believe to be possible. We’re culturally attuned to overcome or work around challenges through strategic and systematic problem solving. Being a woman in a business leadership role today requires the same discipline.
Applying this philosophy doesn’t require an advanced degree, as much as it requires deliberate and consistent effort. I’m a leader who has made a successful career in a heavily male-dominated industry. Over the course of my career there are several key behaviors that I’ve adopted that can help you realize your full potential regardless of your field, or the makeup of your team, organization, or company.
Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned:
Forward (not always upward) mobility
Are you a “make it happen” person or a “let it happen” person? Are you actively alert to new opportunities and challenges, or are you toiling away expecting someone to show you the path or discover you behind your desk?
Charting a deliberate course, while being open to new opportunities and challenges, has served me well. Lateral moves or even taking a few steps back can be very beneficial to learn new skills, meet new people and expand career opportunities in the long-term.
The road to my current position has been long and winding and included an early start as a CPA, later as a senior manager for a manufacturer, and more recently as CEO of a growing architecture practice that is now part of the Stantec family. But had I not been willing to risk taking those interesting side roads during my career, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Define where you want to go, and identify the steps you’ll need to take to get there. Start today by committing to doing something every day, week, or month to keep moving forward toward your career aspirations. Some people just talk about it, complain about it, or dream about it. Be the one who invests in yourself, and focus on your forward mobility.
Network outside of your comfort zone
Some of the best opportunities will present themselves when you step out of my comfort zone to meet new people. Networking can take on many forms, all of which are accessible to all of us in business: Speak at conferences or industry events, publish articles, establish a following on social media, engage in community service, join a board. Make a commitment to do one or a combination of the above, but basically GET OUT THERE!
In doing so, you’re building your own “brand” in your industry, and creating opportunities to network with new colleagues. This helps you establish a presence in your industry and community that you won’t get in the normal course of a work day. Plus, these are learning opportunities, and regardless of where they lead, you will inherently become a better, stronger, smarter, more well-rounded person.
Once you’re out there, don’t fall back into your comfort zone. I’ve attended many conferences and too often see groups of women who already know each other, congregating off in a corner. Sure, that’s part of relationship building. But make sure to invest some of your time meeting new people. Ask a mutual friend for an introduction; or strike up a conversation with an interesting panelist or speaker. Remember – they are there to network, too!
Lastly—network inside your own company, but outside of your clique. Who could you learn from? Who do you need as an advocate for your future aspirations? I’ve had women tell me that it’s difficult for them to network with male colleagues because they don’t golf or watch sports and have a hard time connecting. Take a different approach. Be genuinely curious about others until you find common ground. I’ve met many male colleagues who love to talk about food, wine, politics, the stock market, their families … the list goes on. And of course there is the one thing you already have in common — your own industry.
Control your fears before they control you
Fear is primal to all humans; it’s generally a healthy emotion as it tends to protect us from harm. However, it can also be debilitating if you allow it to rule your life.
When making critical decisions about my future, large or small, I imagine the worst thing that could happen. Then, I assess the probability of that outcome and ask myself whether I could handle it financially, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. I also consider how I am going to feel if I don’t take the risk. Will I be sitting on my porch someday wondering “what-if?”
If the answers are yes, then I proceed with enthusiasm, because while “good things come to those who wait,” great things come to those who go for it!
Don’t believe anyone who says, “You can’t …”
As I look in the rearview mirror, I was not always the obvious choice for some of the roles I’ve attained. In fact, I’ve been told repeatedly by people I considered role models and friends, that I can’t or shouldn’t or won’t achieve certain goals, roles, or responsibilities.
Those experiences were fuel for the fire that drives me.
But everyone is different, and for some of us, these words can shoot holes in our armor of confidence. If you’re confronted with consistent negative reinforcement, and you can’t block it out, then re-examine who you surround yourself with. At a minimum, don’t discuss your career with those who simply cannot be supportive.
As a working mom, I have never let anyone tell me that I can’t have it all—a successful family life and work life. You can, but maybe just not all at the same time.
We all have different aspirations, family situations, support systems and energy levels. Be true to yourself and your values.
In the end, you’ll be proud that regardless of the outcome, you did it your way, and you’ll have the courage of your convictions to help you sleep at night.
Big girls don’t cry
In both science and society, as sophisticated as we’ve become we still can’t agree on how or why men and women are psychologically different. Research can be found to make a case that we’re not so different after all.
But we are different, and in my own experience, women (including myself), tend to react with more emotion than our male counterparts. Which can be an endearing quality at weddings and funerals, but career-limiting in the workplace.
Consider this all-too-common scenario: A male supervisor is in the position of providing constructive criticism to a female subordinate during a performance evaluation. In truth, her success is his success, so he wants a positive outcome. But, because of his directness, the criticism feels very much like a personal attack, even though it’s accurate. Involuntarily, the tears flow.
For some, this scenario isn’t about to change overnight, but there can be adverse consequences for showing these genuine emotions at work. Here’s why: The men I’ve spoken to on this subject admit to feeling horrible about it; most good men have been conditioned (by other good men) that it’s wrong to make a woman cry. So, they stop providing the tough feedback you might need to hear to move forward in your career.
If you find yourself in this situation, try this approach: Calmly thank your supervisor for his feedback, and ask for a few minutes to gather yourself or take a restroom break. Then return to complete the performance review or discussion.
Never miss the opportunity to allow someone to tell you what you can do to improve. Help them be honest by taking your emotions down the hall, and out of the equation. You’ll get more advice, and more mutual respect.
To those who’ve “Made it…”
As women in leadership roles, we have a responsibility to share our knowledge and experience. Take the time to sponsor, coach, and mentor aspiring leaders and advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion to provide future generations the same or greater opportunities than we were afforded.
Aside from just being ‘the right thing to do,’ there is an important business case for increasing both talent and diversity among the ranks of corporate leaders.
Given the current economic outlook and our demographics in the U.S., the need to attract, retain and develop diverse talent is paramount to long-term business success in most industries. Talent and diversity can be major competitive advantages and in some cases the only true differentiators.
This holds particularly true in professional services industries (CPAs, attorneys, architects, engineers, etc.) where the people delivering the service are directly responsible for creating a positive client experience and generating repeat business. Firms that strive to increase organic growth must focus now more than ever before on talented people that reflect the vision, values and diversity of their client organizations, and their client’s customers.
One of the key fundamentals to winning the talent war is to cast a wider net to draw upon the full range of available talent and resources. Unfortunately, many large companies still struggle with tapping into diverse yet highly qualified talent pools.
In my field, for example, the percentage of women graduating from architecture schools in 1985 was 25%. Today, that number has increased to over 40% with women being as likely as men to pursue registration. Yet only 25% of the employees in architectural firms in the U.S. are women and in 2011 only 17% of the leadership were female, with not much in the way of progress since then.
This gap, while disappointing, represents a huge opportunity for any company that wants to tap into new sources of available talent in a highly competitive market.
The bottom line: You can create positive momentum for your company, and at the same time affect positive change for women in business. If you’re in a leadership role, be bold, use your voice to have an even greater impact on the quality and diversity of your talent pool, and set an example for others to follow.
There’s a business case for setting this example, too. A recent analysis by Glassdoor showed the connection between an engaged, happy work force and stock value. Since 2009, says Glassdoor, a portfolio of their “Best Companies to Work For” outperformed the overall stock market by a whopping 115.6 percent!
In the end, I’m not opposed to using metaphors if it helps further the conversation. But if you’re aspiring to be more, do more, and be the best you can be, then heed this advice: Live your life as if there is no ceiling.
Be the architect of your own journey: Don’t be held back, defined, or defeated by anyone else’s (or your own) barriers. Integrate proven and consistent behaviors into your everyday life, and there will be nowhere for you to go but up!
Marjorie Simmons, CPA, CMA, LEED AP senior vice president and business leader for our buildings practice. Previously, she served as the President and CEO of SHW Group, LLP.
As I look in the rearview mirror, I was not always the obvious choice for some of the roles I’ve attained…Those experiences were fuel for the fire that drives me.