Doesn’t it make sense that women who arrive at the top in the workplace should be able to thrive at the top? Sure. But too often they’re regarded as lucky if they merely survive.
Today, women hold fewer than 25% of middle management positions, and the percentage gets lower at each rung up the corporate ladder. Sure, some women are able to climb to the level of CEO. Yet they experience higher turnover than their male counterparts.
So, in today’s workplace reality, what does it take for women to flourish in leadership roles?
That’s the question asked—and answered—in ARRIVE AND THRIVE: 7 Impactful Practices for Women Navigating Leadership.
This timely and practice-driven guide helps women leaders excel in climbing to positions of increased responsibility, risk, and reward.
The insights come from a trio of women from different leadership spheres: Janet Foutty, executive chair of the board of Deloitte US, the country’s largest professional services organization; Lynn Perry Wooten, an organizational development and transformation expert and the first African American to lead Simmons University; and Susan MacKenty Brady, a leadership wellbeing expert and head of the Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership.
Drawing on knowledge and advice from two dozen of the world’s most successful leaders, the authors identify seven key practices that help leaders thrive:
- Investing in Your Best Self
- Embracing Authenticity
- Cultivating Courage
- Fostering Resilience
- Inspiring a Bold Vision
- Creating a Healthy Team Environment
- Committing to the Work of the Inclusive Leader
Rodger Dean Duncan: Your book’s title implies that landing a good job (arrive) doesn’t necessarily translate into successful navigation in the workplace (thrive). Why is that reality especially relevant to women?
Susan MacKenty Brady: Too often, our work culture encourages women to get their foot in the door, only to leave them without support once they step in. For far too long, women leaders have had to focus on survival.
But surviving as a leader is the floor, not the ceiling. What really matters is how you care for and return to your best self, the vision you set, the teams you build, and the impact you make on your colleagues, your organization, and the world.
With the attention at the board level on fostering gender parity—and doing so also at the executive level and for some organizations, all levels—sponsorship efforts to ensure the advancement of women have emerged to narrow the gap. Arriving is getting the job—and there were explicit and implicit systems in place that needed to change in order to realize the increase of women arriving to positions of leadership. Organizations have been focusing on funnel and advancement challenges (getting women to positions of leadership in the first place) and not as much as supporting us once we arrive.
When we DO arrive, many of us are the minority (by a vast margin) and can often feel alone, or like we need to adapt to norms that were put in place for a different context (a context that includes all men). Here’s an extreme but true example: A well-known sports team hires a female C-level executive. She is the first female on the all-male executive team. The first public event for the executive team came with instructions for a dress code that was “blazer, no tie.” This was in 2019.
So many women are searching for honest conversations and practical advice on how to not only reach the top, but truly thrive there.
Duncan: How did you decide to focus on the seven “impactful practices” mentioned in your book’s subtitle? Why these particular seven?
Brady: When our author trio first connected to discuss what we have learned about leadership, the seven practices emerged somewhat organically. Susan as a leader development expert, coach and advisor, Lynn as an academic, and Janet’s years of leading in business at the highest levels all led to themes.
We recognized the themes were actually actions which, when practiced, have not only aided us the most in having positive impact as we have led in a variety of contexts. They were also heavily validated by research.
The themes turned into practices, and the seven practices were born. We didn’t stop there. We checked with other accomplished C-level leaders—women and men.Then we teamed up with and brought along well-recognized leaders who share their personal stories and insights to bring the 7 Impactful Practices for Women Navigating Leadership to life.
The intention of each of the 7 Impactful Practices is to offer practical wisdom—the inspiration women might need on their leadership journey.
Duncan: What does “investing in your best self” look like in terms of mindset and observable behaviors?
Brady: Your mindset is aware; your observable behaviors are rooted in respect for self and others while creating impact.
If you lead from your best self, you can be present in the moment (or bring yourself back there in an instant), your not-so-constructive inner voices are quiet, you are your own exuberant cheerleader, and there is a narrow gap between your intention and your impact on others. Your replay of your words and actions makes you proud. You have listened well, and those around you feel heard and understood.
You influence without unintended negative impact, and if you do not land as intended, you clean it up. You know your strengths and value yourself. You care for your body, mind, and spirit. You are nourished by loving relationships. As best self, you are able to manage your energy and self-care, break the cycle of “not good enough,” cultivate personal and professional boundaries, and return to this best self with intention when you get knocked off balance.
Duncan: How can up-and-coming leaders best “define” their own authenticity and then put it to best use in serving others?
Janet Foutty: “Being yourself” means embodying the principles you value—and letting these values guide your actions. Building consistency early on will also serve you well as you advance in leadership because it will be second nature to return to those principles when faced with moments that challenge your sense of who you are and what you care about.
As we rise to roles of greater responsibility and influence, showing transparency and vulnerability—essentially sharing bits of ourselves in contextually appropriate and honest ways—helps build followership. By modeling vulnerability—sharing the challenges we face, the successes we’ve had, and principles we believe in—we’re showing the next generation that they can do the same.
Duncan: When discussing courage, you say the antidote to fear is asking for help. What do you tell people who harbor the notion that asking for help is a sign of weakness or lack of confidence?
Foutty: Admitting that you don’t have all the answers and committing to work collectively with your team to find them, is courageous. The other benefit that comes from acknowledging when you don’t know something is that it sets up conditions for receiving support and empowering others.
I took on a stretch assignment many years ago to lead our federal business. It was a sector I did not have experience in—I didn’t have the content. I was successful because I built a strong, diverse team around me and we evolved to a culture of greater accountability.
The environment we are operating in today as leaders is far too complex to go it alone, greater value comes from having diversity of thought and input from those around you be it your direct team, or your trusted advisors, so lean on others.
Duncan: A lot of people talk about resilience these days. How do you define resilience, and in what ways is it pertinent to the way people (in particular, women) navigate workplace challenges?
Lynn Perry Wooten: At its heart, resiliency is the ability to withstand and recover from difficult life events. During the past two years, we have had numerous opportunities—probably more than any of us would wish for—to demonstrate resiliency. This includes the global pandemic, a racial and social reckoning, and threats to democracy at home and abroad.
Fostering resilience is slightly different. It involves the capacity to not only weather adversity, but to actively anticipate and prepare for challenges, and to embrace the steps that allow you to emerge from these events even stronger. Fostering resilience is so important for leaders as they navigate workplace challenges, because it’s how we turn a crisis into an opportunity.
Building and fostering resilience is a continual cycle that involves four key steps: fear, pausing, listening/learning, and growth. Leaders are often tempted to brush over the initial period of anxiety they feel during a crisis. But I encourage people to embrace it and then take a pause. This allows time to process so they can more effectively engage in the listening and learning that eventually lead to growth. Fostering resilience helps leaders boost their own wellbeing while also enabling them to unlock new opportunities at the individual, team, and organizational levels.
Duncan: In the context of leadership, what exactly is a “vision,” and how can it be used to influence people’s personal mindsets and performance?
Foutty: A vision begins with noticing what others overlook—and devising a plan that will lead your team to a different or better outcome. You don’t need to wake up in the morning with a brilliant idea to inspire a vision. Often, vision comes from listening carefully to others and helping to connect the dots.
The principles I think about for inspiring a vision include:
- Being clear about your organization’s purpose and “why.”
- Listening with humility for brilliant ideas, recognizing the value of new insight and, if it sticks, deliberately exploring possibilities.
- Having courage to take a leap of faith, freely walking into the unknown.
- Communicating with enthusiasm about what you know, what you don’t know, and the path forward.
Duncan: What do you see as a leader’s most critical tasks in creating an environment where individuals—and teams—can thrive?
Wooten: Healthy environments that allow individuals and teams to thrive are a key factor in the overall success of an organization, institution, or business—particularly in this era that’s often associated with increased burnout and the great resignation.
There are six things that influence the ability to develop and empower health teams:
- understanding and unleashing team member strengths,
- team direction and strategy,
- communicating honestly and convening frequently for service excellence,
- learning and developing together,
- making it appreciative, and
- ensuring psychological safety.
While each of these tasks has tremendous value, it’s so important to convene teams and enact the psychological safe practices that are crucial to facilitate ideas, growth, and change.
For teams to thrive, people should feel comfortable speaking up, asking tough questions, sharing ideas, admitting mistakes, and raising concerns without being rejected or having their words held against them. Leaders can foster environments where employees feel psychologically safe and empowered to engage by asking questions, acknowledging their own limitations, and expressing vulnerability.
Duncan: If there’s a single word in today’s workplace that’s open to nearly limitless interpretations, “inclusion” may be that word. What does “inclusion” mean to you, and what’s the leader’s role in managing the related human dynamics?
Wooten: Being an inclusive leader means understanding who you are, being intentional about your learning, and listening to the needs of your employees and stakeholders. Inclusive leadership is a continual process of growing, learning, and adapting. It’s vital that leaders set the tone and model inclusive leadership best practices. This empowers individuals and makes teams stronger—as everyone is engaged and believes they have something unique and important to contribute.
Wellbeing is also a crucial part of inclusion. Leaders should be thinking about how they can create and advance climates that promote that within their teams and organizations.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular conributor.