By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Today we’re celebrating our 2000th post (check out our Founder and CEO Nicki Gilmour’s article this morning on inclusive leadership), by reflecting on the things we’ve learned while working to inform, empower, and inspire women to break the glass ceiling.
As Editor of The Glass Hammer, one of the most fulfilling parts of my job is the opportunity to interview extraordinary women and tell their stories through our profile series like Voices of Experience, Movers and Shakers, and Intrepid Woman.
Today I’m sharing ten things I’ve learned from our Voice of Experience profiles that have personally impacted me and my journey – I hope you’ll find them just as inspiring!
1. Think About the Kind of Life You Want to Live
To illustrate the importance of what she called “living the life of the possible,” Sheree Stomberg, Head of O&T Administration, Global Operations & Technology Chief Administrative Office at Citi, shared a moving story about her grandfather.
“He lived life with no regrets – he was very active into his 90s. He lived the art of the possible,” she said. “When he was 65 he suffered a heart attack. The doctor said he must live a life without physical exertion, not eat food that was too hot or drink things that were too cold… he looked at the list and tore it up. The doctor said he wouldn’t live 5 years.”
She continued, “When he was in his 70s, we went mountain climbing in Alaska together. And when he was 75 he went back to tell the doctor about it.”
“I’m not advising people to discredit medical advice,” she joked. “But he always looked for how to move life forward. That’s what I mean about living the life of the possible.”
2. Approach Risks with an Open Attitude
Pamela Craig, CFO of Accenture, shared some advice that truly struck a chord with me, and I’ve even repeated it to friends and family. She was discussing the importance of taking career risks and being open to new opportunities.
She said, “It’s easy to say, ‘I’m not sure I can do that.’ You should say, ‘I bet I can do that.’”
It’s easy to be cautious or even negative when considering new ideas or opportunities – but it’s so much more gratifying to embrace a new challenge with open arms and just give it your best shot. Rather than think of everything that could go wrong, consider everything that could go right.
3. Maintain Optimism
“It’s important to be optimistic,” advised women’s rights pioneer Marie Wilson, Founder of The White House Project, an honorary “Founding Mother” of the Ms. Foundation, and Co-Founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day.
“If you’re a hopeful person, everybody will bring you their despair. Despair – I eat that stuff for breakfast!” she joked. Wilson has spent her entire career graciously breaking down barriers and helping to raise up girls and women, and she knows what it’s like to face adversity. Being a woman with big dreams can still, even today, be a challenge, she said, but you should never give those dreams up.
She continued, “If you’re going to be a leader, don’t rush to change yourself. The world is still mixed about ambitious women. You need people who will encourage you to dream big – and the world is often discouraging. You need a tough skin that is porous – slough off the critics, but listen.”
4. It’s Okay If Your Career Takes Some Twists and Turns
Many women I’ve interviewed have emphasized how the path to the top is rarely a direct route. Viva Hammer, Principal at KPMG Washington National Tax said that you shouldn’t be surprised, or discouraged, if you hit a road block, or your career does not go precisely as planned.
An Aussie native, she explained how it took her 17 years to get her US driver’s license – but rather than throw up her hands and give up, she kept at it. Similarly, she said, even though your career can seem like a long slog, don’t give up. “Sometimes for women, your career can seem like a long road with lots of detours. You need a lot of faith – or desire – to believe you’re going to make it.”
“Never give up,” she said. “Never, never, never, never!”
5. Feel Entitled to Leadership
Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of World Women Leaders and Senior Advisor at Goldman Sachs, emphasized the importance of recognizing that you have a right to be a leader – and you should act like one.
She said, “See yourself as the CEO of a company whether you want to be one or not.” She continued, “Feel entitled to lead. Know what you want your legacy to be.”
6. Have Courage and Confidence
Birgit Neu, COO, Corporate Development, Global Banking and Markets at HSBC, explained an important career lesson she learned – if something’s going wrong, you have a duty to speak up. She recalled how as a very junior person, she recognized that while her managers on a project were congratulating themselves on a job well done, she knew there were problems in the implementation. So she spoke up.
“I was afraid I had done the wrong thing, but it turned out to be the right thing to do. It set off a firestorm of activity to address the problems our clients were having.”
She continued, “That little moment in time gave me the courage and confidence to speak up and to always do the right thing. Doing the right thing by your clients is key.”
7. Work/Life is a Trade-Off – Really
We hear over and over again how women (and men) must make sacrifices between work and life, but it wasn’t until hearing Michelle Clayman’s simple indignation at the idea of “work/life balance” that the idea really hit home.
Clayman, Founder, Managing Partner, and Chief Investment Officer of New Amsterdam Partners said, “The idea of balance implies that perfection is possible. You’re insane if you think perfection is possible. It’s about what trade-offs you are willing to live with.”
8. Have a Sense of Humor
One of the benefits of doing interviews with really senior women is the opportunity to get to know something of their personalities. Some are measured and cautious with their words and some of them are bold and brash. Some of them are hilarious.
From recalling how she used her first computer to hold flower pots, or explaining how her golf instructor suggested she take up yoga instead, Annica Lindegren, Partner and Head of White & Case’s Bank Finance Practice in Germany, made me laugh repeatedly – and as a result came across as truly genuine.
She explained that a sense of humor is important, especially when working with clients. “In fact, many of our clients prefer to work with women – they always say we’re ‘much more fun,’ or more relaxed, or they can crack jokes in a different way,” she explained.
9. Support the People Behind You
SEC Commissioner Elisse B. Walter expressed an idea that many other senior women have since articulated. If you had the benefit of a role model or a mentor, you should be a willing mentor to junior women as well.
She explained, “The informal networks are the most important. Any number of much younger women poke their heads into my office, asking questions about work/life balance, their children, their work. I was able to take advantage, as well, of women in leadership positions at the Commission when I was young.”
“I think it is very important for people to know that there is support at the top,” she added.
10. Understand Who You Are
Asahi Pompey, Managing Director, Compliance, Investment Banking at Goldman Sachs said one of the keys to building a successful career is really knowing and understanding what you’re good at, and what you could do better.
“Know yourself – know your strengths and weaknesses,” she advised. “Do a realistic appraisal of yourself – almost a gap analysis. Where could you develop greater expertise? What is your comfort zone?”
She added, “Understanding who you are in an unadulterated way is really going to help in your career.”