Tips for women who have their sights set on the C-suite

Without question, statistics show that greater diversity within an organization drives better performance and more innovation.

It makes sense. With diversity comes different life experiences and perspectives that provide insight into consumer-purchasing decisions. For instance, more women now make decisions about health care, home purchases, and many other financial decisions that affect the family.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “A growing body of research links greater gender diversity on teams and in corporate management to more innovation and better financial performance. That business case is a big reason more senior leaders at companies — 73 percent — say achieving equality for women in the workplace is a priority, up from 56 percent four years ago.”

It’s clear that the tide is turning and more opportunities for women will become available in top leadership roles and executive positions.

Are you ready?

And if you’re a business leader — male or female — are you doing the right things to ensure more equity and diversity within your leadership team?

Take charge of your career

There are steps you can take to prepare yourself for management and leadership positions, so when you come across an opportunity to climb the proverbial “corporate ladder” you are also the best candidate.

  • Be open about your goals. As a new college graduate interviewing for my entry-level position at State Bank of Cross Plains all those years ago, they asked me about career goals. I told the head of human resources at the time, “Someday, I want your job.” Not surprisingly, they helped me learn skills and make moves that eventually led me right into that top job in my department. In truth, it happened much earlier than I expected because we were working toward the same goal. More recently, I surprised my CEO when I told him I wanted to go to the Graduate School of Banking someday. Within two months, he suggested the timing might be right for the organization to support that goal as well. Don’t assume these opportunities will happen organically if you simply work hard. Respectfully share your expectations with the people who can help you put a plan into place for professional development and growth.
  • Develop self-awareness. Many employees stumble at all levels by being either overcritical or overconfident regarding their own skill set. Evaluate your abilities objectively and be honest about your true strengths and weaknesses. Look for ways to improve rather than hide your vulnerabilities and seek out opportunities to showcase your strengths.
  • Get better at communication. Even if this is a strength, I guarantee you can get better. Women, in particular, often apologize too much or hold back opinions. A friend recently shared an example of making a simple wording change that created a big shift. Her boss pointed out that she often says, “I think you should consider …” when speaking to the organization’s board of directors. Instead, she now says, “We should consider …” so that the board sees her as part of the team of decision-makers.
  • Take initiative beyond your job description. This does not mean you have to work late or do more than your male counterparts. It means exactly what it says. Become the person that others count on. When you see something isn’t working or getting done, find out why and offer to help. Share ideas for new products or point out suggestions to improve efficiency. If an important project falls behind schedule, find out if there’s anything you can do to help even if it’s outside your normal duties. Be aware of people’s pain points around you and provide solutions and assistance. That’s the attitude of a leader rather than a worker.
  • Seek out mentors. A mentor can be an official relationship or simply someone you admire who you try to model your career after. A mentor may not even be aware you consider them a mentor. The most important thing is to identify leaders you want to learn from, either by asking them questions, requesting feedback and advice, or even just emulating what you like about their leadership style or career path and making decisions that incorporate those things into your own development.
  • Stretch yourself. Research suggests that women often won’t apply for a job unless they have all the criteria listed. Men, on the other hand, will often take a chance and apply if they fulfill most or just some of the requirements. You can’t be considered unless you throw your hat in the ring. Find ways to connect your past experience to your ability to adapt and learn pieces of the new role and communicate your willingness and excitement for taking on this challenge.

Think like an executive

With both men and women, I often find that a candidate’s biggest obstacle to taking the next step in their career is not competence, it’s lack of global thinking. Consider the following:

  • Understand what your company expects of its leaders. Are executives expected to volunteer on local boards of directors? Does your company require an advanced degree or specific business training in addition to knowledge of your own area of expertise? For example, in my personal situation, I had to understand budgets and learn how to read financial reports in addition to exhibiting excellence in my own field of human resources.
  • Understand all aspects of the company. How does your organization make money? What is its mission and driving motivation behind strategic decisions? You can’t just be good at your job. You have to understand the other roles and departments and how they contribute to the company’s overall success.
  • Project confidence in your opinions and decisions. Develop the ability to hold your own in a conversation without second-guessing yourself. Of course, you need to remain open to different opinions and perspectives, but that doesn’t mean your opinion is less worthy. Be prepared to explain your strategic thought process. Have confidence in your ideas and share your perspective with the authority you’ve earned from experience.
  • Empower others. Real leaders look for ways to raise up others around them along the way. Remember to reach a hand back for someone else as often as you reach forward for help.

The company’s role in developing women executives

In mid-December 2019, State Bank of Cross Plains welcomed our first female chief financial officer. After an extensive search involving more than 140 candidates, SBCP hired Sue Loken as senior vice president-CFO. To be clear, we set out to hire the very best CFO we could find. However, it was important to us to have a diverse list of qualified candidates, so we made that clear to our recruiting agency partner. The result was a large pool of incredible candidates who impressed us with their breadth of experience and quality leadership skills.

Below are some of the takeaways from that process:

  • Don’t assume. Don’t assume anything about a candidate’s decision-making process. For instance, don’t assume they won’t want to live in the Midwest or that they will refuse to relocate. Don’t assume they will struggle with work-life balance or even that an “overqualified” candidate won’t want a step down. They applied. Let them decide based on the offer.
  • Male or female, people want to be home at night. While there’s really no such thing as “balance” on a day-to-day basis, most people want a personal life. You may have to work late for a client meeting one night, but you may also have to leave early for your daughter’ soccer game the next day. Recognize that a home life is not gender specific.
  • Be open to flexible schedules. While not every job can offer a work-from-home option, the modern worker wants — and often needs — more flexibility than ever before. Encourage that creativity and find innovative ways for people to use the uninterrupted quiet of home to complete their annual budget or to use remote technology to finish a presentation while a child is home sick.
  • Ask about goals regularly. Find out who is interested in a path to leadership and focus their development on preparing for that eventual role. Not every person enjoys managing others or getting away from their core duties to include leadership. Again, don’t assume.

I asked SBCP’s new CFO about her career path and any lessons she could share as part of this conversation. I think Sue Loken’s message resonates with all of us as we strive to embrace diversity in the workplace.

“Two big lessons I have learned are to ask for help along the way and to stay true to who you are,” Loken shares. “First, I have been blessed with great leaders and mentors in my career who have encouraged me. We sometimes think if we ask for help, then we are failing. But the truth is our mentors and leaders want us to succeed and are happy to offer guidance, so do not be afraid to reach out. The other important lesson I have learned is to be true to myself. Embrace your unique personality and perspective! Know who you are and do not deviate from that, as this is key to leading people and being successful in life.”

Kari Davis is senior vice president-human resources at State Bank of Cross Plains. She serves on the bank’s leadership team and has been instrumental in identifying and developing future leaders both internally and throughout the community.

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