Leading Fearlessly: How can you create opportunities for women to lead in your organization?

Published by Suzanna de Baca on

I never dreamed I would someday be a CEO until a man suggested it. In a summer job during my MBA program, my boss asked me what roles I aspired to in the future. I told him I could see myself as the head of marketing or sales somewhere. “You need to think bigger,” he laughed, adding: “You were born to be a CEO.” I was flabbergasted by his assessment. Even if I had already run projects and served as director of a nonprofit organization, I had not really ever thought of myself in those terms. I’ve often reflected on how his vision of what was possible for me gave me both the idea and the confidence to develop as a leader, especially at a time when not a lot of women were in business. 

“When more women are empowered to lead, everyone benefits,” asserted an article by the American Psychology Association. I was inspired by my boss and other role models to pursue opportunities to advance and lead. But, despite the countless studies outlined in that article that demonstrate women leaders help increase productivity and improve culture, the gender gap still exists. According to an article last year in Forbes, only 10.4% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are women.

What can you be doing to support and develop female leaders in your own organizations? The APA article noted, “Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists offer a host of evidence-based strategies for helping close the gender gap.” They point to identifying leadership potential early in a woman’s career, skills and leadership training for women, allyship by men, and mentorship and sponsorship programs, among others.

I turned to top local leaders to ask for their advice. In addition to the strategies suggested by APA, they offered new insights on how to help lift up and support women on their leadership journeys.

Chris Koepplin, CEO, Ellipsis: 

Address conscious and unconscious bias. I believe one of the most important things we can do to create more opportunities for women in leadership spaces is to address the conscious and unconscious biases in our workplaces and in our communities. When decades of research support the positive impact of having women in leadership roles, it is imperative that we address the barriers to getting them there. Women in positions of leadership need to be role models and mentors for other up-and-coming women with strength. Everyone in positions of leadership needs to serve as allies and cheerleaders for women, creating opportunities to develop skills and experience success. We all need to stop naming the same leadership traits and styles as positive in men and negative in women. Leadership is leadership and when we do it well, we need to recognize it for its value.

Dr. Nalo Johnson, president and CEO, Mid-Iowa Health Foundation:

Invest in mentorship. Mentorship is key for anyone aspiring to a leadership position, as well as for continuing to grow their skills once they are in a leadership role. It is essential to have experienced individuals who can invest their time and knowledge in others to help them navigate the professional sphere. Studies have shown mentorship is a particularly important tool to successfully engage women and people of color in leadership roles.  

Anna Nalean, Community Impact Coordinator, Delta Dental of Iowa:

Be intentional. Businesses have to be intentional about acknowledging and then growing the many talented female leaders that surround them. So many times I’ve seen organizations lose out on incredibly talented leaders, simply by not seeing her (she is often not the loudest voice in the room!) or seeing the potential she brings. Recognizing that leader, telling her you see her potential, and then being willing to invest in that potential through development opportunities. 

Maria Volante, president, Volante Consulting: 

Listen. Organizations can create opportunities for women by listening. Women have superpowers they may not always realize they have. Women can clearly see where they can make a difference but may hold themselves back by not asking, even suggesting, what they want. As an executive coach I have many conversations with women of all ages who have strategic thinking skills, creative ideas, ability to motivate and develop others – phenomenal talents. That said, women often hold back by waiting to be asked for their thoughts and ideas. All they need is encouragement and support to speak their brilliant minds. This is a two-way street – women can fearlessly put their thoughts on the table and organizations can listen. Truly listen, learn and leverage the infinite source of the superpower of the women in their organizations.  

Emily Williams-Bouska, business execution leader, Wells Fargo:

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and jump in. For businesses, get comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations – what does your leadership table look like? Why are there so few, if any, women at that table or other decision-making tables? How can you change that immediately and then really listen to them? Not next year. Not on a five-year roadmap – now!  

For women … take up space – in your daily conversations, during the all-hands meeting, during your performance evaluations, in front of leadership. Your voice is important, so make people notice. Do not be afraid to step into a space that does not look like you. That is where you are needed most. Take the opportunities that were never on your “professional path” bingo card. Never in a million years did I think my career would land me in corporate real estate, but I jumped and am using my voice and expertise in a space that is often lacking a woman’s perspective.

Categories: Leadership