Photo of glass breaking

Women in leadership: 5 ideas to help break through the glass ceiling

Arlene Egan 18th February 2021

In early 2020, I left my house in the suburbs to give a talk to a group of formidable women in the heart of Dublin city centre. As was normal then, the morning traffic was building on the streets, although the day had quite broken. Buses, bikes, and those amazing people who run to work passed by. Queues for coffee were forming, people were meeting up and purposefully getting on with their day. Despite the buzz, energy, and noise around me, one sound reverberated through my core, incessant, loud, and irritating. It was the voice in my head. It was unashamedly pointing out all that could go wrong. It was mean and unhelpful. It drew attention to the chip on my nail polish, the dampness of my hair, the unevenness of my lipstick, my questionable boots… it went on and on. It was not the first time I had heard this voice. I have heard it many times.

At the venue, which conveyed a mix of glamour and function I nervously hung around, waiting to deliver my talk on personal bias. Heart racing, self-doubt oozing through my veins I listened intently for my cue to take the stage. The voice in my head had gone quiet now, there was no need for any last put-downs or snarky reminders of how I could mess this up, I already knew. And then, there I was. Hoping dearly that someone in the audience would find my ideas useful. As I paced the space underneath the big screen where my key messages were coming to life, I became aware of the point I was making; for every one piece of negative information we receive, it takes on average three to five positive pieces to reduce its impact. As I watched people nod, the statistic clearly resonating with some, I thought about my morning commute and calculated that I had arrived into the conference room with approximately 25 negative messages I had given myself! Self-sabotage. I had put myself firmly in my own way. This had to stop. Easier said than done. Yet, in understanding the impact this thinking was having on aspects of my performance was my first point of reflection. In sharing my insights with some of my female friends and colleagues, I discovered three things. Firstly, self-sabotage was not unique to me. Secondly, this way of thinking was delaying my leadership development and potential. Thirdly, I could stop thinking this way, which in turn can change how I prepare, turn up and delivered on my role. As we discussed ideas for developing leadership practice and presence, these 5 ideas resonated most with us when it came to women in leadership roles:

Be comfortable with Ambition

You want the next move up. You want to earn more. You want a different role. You want a different lifestyle. You won’t get any of these if things stay the same.

Your drive to get to the next level of your leadership practice may yield different outcomes. Regardless, to move forward and upward, you will need to create momentum in your thinking and action. Inevitably, this means change. By spending time working out what you want to give and gain from your next role is useful in helping you to identify a path to success. Unfortunately, drive is commonly described as a male characteristic. Yet, drive or momentum is necessary not only to secure leadership roles, but as a skill within a leadership role. Leaders are expected to for example drive strategic initiatives or drive organisational performance. Ambition and drive are part of a leader’s skill stack. Can you identify what you have in your current leadership skill stack? Can you articulate what you want next in your leadership journey? Can you plan for how to close gaps, build networks, learn the politics required to move you forward?

Acknowledge your whole self

You are an employee. You are a colleague. You are a peer. You are more than that.

For some people work is their source of energy, fulfilment, responsibility, and satisfaction. Their purpose is inextricably linked with their role. For others, these qualities; energy, fulfilment responsibility and satisfaction come from different places. If your experience is aligned to the latter, acknowledge their existence. What other roles do you have? Are you a mother, grandmother, carer, sister, daughter, partner, friend, who else are you? There are so many powerful examples of people playing down the importance of these parts of life to play a role that suggests that “my job is my number 1 priority” even though other elements of life are equally important. Commonly, tension arises when we play one role at the expense of others. This tension frequently results in increase stress and burnout. Over the years, I have met many women in leadership roles who share examples of how allowing colleagues to understanding non-work-related aspects of their life helped them to become better leaders. In some instances, stronger work-place relationships were formed. In others, teams had a deeper awareness of how to support each other when they knew what else was going on. Sometimes we forget how much value we add to our roles because there are other aspects of ourselves. Acknowledge that you are more than the sum of the important parts that make up your life.

Ask for help

You are undoubtedly brilliant yet, you can’t know it all.

Earlier this week I had a wonderful conversation with my mentor who was telling me how he used to believe that he had to have all the answers. Otherwise, how could he be considered an effective leader? He reflected that by making many mistakes, this mindset diminished over time. Asking for help can take practice. Accepting help can take getting used to. But if it is any consolation, you can always pay help forward. People you trust, your team, your tribe, your support are there to help. Part of being an effective leader is knowing how to build teams to support work. It’s also knowing what you can do and how can support you when the need arises. Be comfortable asking for help. Be okay with not having all the answers. Allow people to help and help them in return. Continue to build your leadership competence by asking for opportunities, asking for mentorship, ask… the worst response you can get is ‘no’, or ‘not now’ and if that happens, ask someone else.

Be courageous – stand in the sun

You are a leader in your own right. You know what you are capable of and you know what opportunities you need to take to advance your skills.

The majority of leaders I have worked for since I began my career were male. When I began working I had so much to learn. Over the years, I was very fortunate to learn about leadership from different types of leaders I have worked for, some of their lessons I hold onto, others I let go of. Working for leaders and stepping into your own leadership space are very different. Speaking up, speaking out, putting your ideas forward, driving your agenda, challenging the status quo, all take courage. Yet, as mentioned previously, to be an effective leader, these behaviours are expected. Recognise opportunities to evidence your leadership. Take chances in putting yourself forward. Be bold and brave to state your ideas and be heard.

Silence your inner critic

You have made mistakes. You will make more. You are not perfect. No leader is.

Deal kindly with any unrealistic expectations you have placed on yourself. Remember it takes 3 – 5 positive affirmations to counter one negative, how can you help yourself to recognise and promote the strengths you bring as a leader rather than any shortcomings? All leaders are works in progress, rather than finished products. What is next for you?