I have the privilege of spending much of my time in the company of leaders in all sorts and sizes of businesses around the world, and I’m glad to say many of them are women. I asked 16 Irish women leaders, working in start-ups, SMEs and large global PLCs, three questions about what they were proud of, what leadership meant to them, and advice they’d give to others – here’s what they said:
What are you most proud of in your role as a leader?
“That my peers trust me to do the right thing even if that means needing to say something uncomfortable or take a less travelled road to get the right outcome. Staying true to my values is something I’m proud of, and that can be difficult in a world that can reward the loudest voices.”
“That I can bring a team together and get the best out of them, even when the going is tough.”
“I am most proud of my ability to empower organizations to deliver positive results and to enable them to feel confident in their ability to do so. I am proud that I am not afraid to challenge or ask “why”. I am also very proud of my ability to build strong and positive working relationships which are key to finding solutions and promoting a positive working environment.”
“Having experienced what can be achieved when the whole team is pulling together to achieve the objective – it’s very powerful and rewarding. Also seeing how individuals shine in the process.”
“Being able to drive the vision and influence the business agenda across the business. Being able to lead by example with my team and help them to achieve their potential. Showing passion for what I do, being authentic and staying true to my values. Most proud of how my contribution matters and is valid and is sought”
“I like seeing things getting done as a result of the decisions I make. I sometimes use my position to impact individuals positively, e.g. because I have a fair degree of autonomy as it relates to decision making, I can make things happen within my scope of control that help people out and make their work environment better and more conducive to success. And increased productivity.”
“I never really wanted to be a leader and have never asked for a promotion or a pay rise. So, in one way, I have become a leader despite myself J. There is a real sense of achievement but that is balanced with a never-absent sense of frustration with not being able to do enough as I work part-time (well I don’t really and that is frustrating) and parent part-time. I have always held back from going all-in in terms of taking on more responsibility, as I also want to be at home for the kids. I value the parenting piece more than the work piece, so I guess that there is a constant tension there.”
“Actually, not because of the topic but having developed and grown two females (colleagues) members into amazing business ladies and seeing their potential.
Having the vision for taking the business further.”
“Loving what I do, not everyone can love their job.”
“To me, a leader is someone who allows others to become their best professional selves in a trusting, safe, productive environment, a place in which all can air their views and be challenged regardless of the seniority. A leader should be someone who will respect each human as a human, regardless of age, sex or indeed any other factors extrinsic to who they are as a worker but ultimately builds a team of people who can be self-sufficient, innovative and creative and work side by side with those with various backgrounds and qualifications. A leader should be a person who will reprimand but fairly. Some managers are too weak or too strong; in my opinion, balance is key. I am proud to say I do not thrive on the power of being a leader; I just have the sheer passion to progress. Learning to manage a team and to lead are two drastically different skill sets, both of which I hopefully always will continue to improve in. I believe this is the basis of the culture we are creating at our business: an ever-evolving, highly communicative company with incredible humans who are the force behind the brand.”
“Being part of setting the strategy for the business and then being held accountable for driving and delivering on that strategy.”
“First off, to be operating at this level in a successful organisation is an achievement in its self. I have come through the ranks and have had great fortune to report into great leaders, which gave me the opportunity to observe different styles and enhance and develop over the years, my leadership style. I’m most proud of my ability to adapt and grow within an ever-changing world while keeping true to my core beliefs. I like this one from Robin Sharma: “There is nothing noble about being superior to some other person. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self…. Run your own race.”
“I am proud of what we have achieved, where more and more manufacturing is moving overseas, we continue to manufacture the majority of our product here in Ireland. Our product is very good but our service is the best. I get a real kick out of positive feedback from customers – as I know it’s the result of the sum of all the parts – it’s not a fluke. Although our profits have dropped, I believe we can get back on track, to be a more profitable Company with a strong future – pulling all this together is what makes me most proud.”
“I think I am most proud of seeing people who I have taken on developing their personal skills and progressing their careers. On several occasions, I have met people who I worked with in the past who are happy to almost boast that they were ‘trained’ by me or that they had a couple of months under my mentorship. The first time this happened, I was almost embarrassed, but now as I begin to believe more in myself, it makes me very proud.”
“Having a competent, hardworking team who are able to deliver targets while working together in a positive environment and work well with the rest of the company.”
What has being a leader meant to you?
“I have learned a lot and have a lot of scars and experiences from continuous learning. I keep a written journal to make sense of my decisions, attitudes, behaviours.
I’m grateful people backed me along my career journey to grow and learn so I can handle the privilege and responsibility yet I don’t think it’s possible to master it!
It makes me deeply uncomfortable and vulnerable regularly”
“Having a seat AT the table, owning the consequences of being a decision maker and making a difference.”
“Throughout my career, I have sought leaders that inspire and challenge me. I have sought leaders who I can learn from and go to for advice and direction. For me, it is really important that I do the same for my team and other colleagues that work with me. I am acutely aware of the importance of being a positive influence for people and showing others that dignity, empathy, respect, curiosity and drive are key when leading teams.”
“Mobilising and getting the most out of people around me and being part of a highly functional team.”
“Being a leader has meant that I have been able to create a vision and direction for my team and support them to achieve their career goals.”
“That your opinion/contribution counts. Even on matters which may not be (or even be close to) your area of expertise, you’ll always have a contribution to make. That, in itself, instils a sense of confidence that stretches far beyond the workplace.”
“Guiding and developing staff. And knowing that you can’t know everything, or do everything brilliantly, that other people are better at certain jobs than you, so let them at it.”
“Being positive and always knowing that there is a solution.”
“I believe I have been a leader since I’ve become an adult as I became a mother at 18. Being a young mother has taught me to appreciate structure but not be dictated by it and, in turn, to be flexible and adapt quickly, as business goals change drastically and rapidly.”
“Being a leader has meant having the courage and having belief in our vision and goal so vehemently that it never sways. I would hope that my team see the tenacity of saying “this will succeed, this is succeeding” and follow suit. Humility and presence are two characteristics I aim to bring to the table, as acting aloof or above your team are not constructive, productive or necessary.”
“I see it as a jigsaw puzzle. Each department survives thanks to their work as well as that of others. I aim to be fair to all, show appreciation as best as I can in a start-up and remain firm with clear objectives while always keeping the business’s message, morals and ethics in mind. I have thoroughly enjoyed earning respect, not demanding it. I’d love to one day feel I’ve inspired members of my team as I seem to have inspired my peers in my industry. I perceive my role as a culture-minded and vision-observer, guarding the brand DNA and safeguarding it for the future.”
“I had to step back and think about this one,…..pressurized at times, being accountable, being unpopular when you need to table an unpalatable issue or make a hard decision, a juggle between work life and home life on plenty of occasions, working with great colleagues (many of whom have become life lasting friends) and a huge sense of pride and achievement.”
“I understand better that if I don’t take care of myself, then I can’t lead others. In the recent past, I have come to realise that it’s more important that I treat people how they want to be treated and not how I think they need to be treated… this is a work in progress….”
“This is a hard one – lots of words jump into mind: fun, pride, fulfilment, challenging, scary, frustration, excitement, variety, people, learning, not good enough / insecurity, highs and lows but it’s worth it! The more I realise my shortfalls as a leader the better leader I become – does that make sense?”
“To me personally, being a leader has meant that I can be someone who will inspire and influence people. This was something that I would never have even dreamed of in the early days of my career when I looked, often in awe, at the then leaders surrounding me. It never even crossed my mind that I would one day be in a similar position. Being a leader means a lot to me and I recognise that it also carries a heavy weight of responsibility, as I feel hugely responsible for the development of individuals in the teams I work with, and equally for the business decisions that come with this level of responsibility.”
“My “voice” is heard so to speak and have the ability to raise the “voices” of others who are not in the position of leadership. Clearly more responsibility too which brings both challenges, more interesting work, some tough decisions and sometimes having to push others when things are needed.”
What one piece of advice would you give aspiring women leaders?
“To invest in understanding who you really are because without that rich insight and awareness you simply won’t have the impact and influence. That’s a constant learning curve but only then can you be true to who you really are and realize your potential – that’s when amazing things happen. At a time when mainstream media is focused on hashtag campaigns and societal divisions in gender and race, go beyond this narrative of leadership and women in business. We need critical thinking and creative bravery to lead. One way to do that is to Invest in understanding the dynamics of human behaviour and historical references from previous eras
Be brave, it is seldom the ‘right’ time or such a thing as ‘balance’ but if you are resourceful you can make it all work, I remind myself that I have chosen this path and can choose to do something else. It is all in MY power.”
“PAY FOR GOOD CHILDCARE! That is based on accumulating years of stress as not approaching it properly. Instead, I did a bit of this and a bit of that, and it was seriously stressful and was an entirely false economy at the time. I was earning enough to get decent childcare in place but never took the plunge, and it added about 15 years to my life!”
“Other key advice (and this is universal) is ‘back yourself’. I’m well read on diversity, but sometimes it is really very simple…no man ever feels he’s paid too much or promoted too far. Woman (especially Gen Xers like me – not so much with younger generations) can often undervalue their worth to the business (self-worth is not gender specific – this is more enterprise-worth related). Don’t! Bet on yourself and, as long as you back it up by delivering, you’re good.”
“The advice I would give aspiring women leaders is to be fearless, curious and believe in yourself. Surround yourself with positive influencers and those you admire. Build a network of peers so that you have support, especially when times are challenging. Look at challenging times as a learning ground for the future and remember that there is always a way forward. I would also say to “own your voice” and don’t be afraid to speak up and challenge if you feel it is needed.”
“Get some good mentors around you who help you in different aspects of your career – counselling when needed, coaching you through issues/challenges, inspiring you to strive for higher goals, helping you to network organisations and representing you positively in the organisation. This might require multiple mentors.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but if you do own up to them quickly and move on
Don’t hold onto any regrets”
“Everyone is afraid! Afraid of making a mistake, of making an eejit of themselves, of looking stupid, of getting something completely wrong, of putting themselves out there. But with the right support from your peers and your boss and your co-workers and friends, and really anyone else, whose opinion you value, finding your voice becomes slightly easier. It’s never a done-deal – I am still afraid most days, just not as much as I used to be, and the fear is lessening all the time.
I love the article on competence, and confidence https://hbr.org/2013/08/why-do-so-many-incompetent-men Know your competence, which will allow you to be confident.”
“Remember the chances are you are more than capable of doing the job.”
“Ask (something I don’t do); you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
“Know of the “imposter theory”, just so you can recognise it and work with it.”
“Listen to yourself. To lead, you must have a philosophy and brand values that you wish to represent. Ask yourself what structure you wish to create for the group that you are leading and why you want to create that. What sort of culture will it nurture? Would you want to work there? How does it look, feel and smell? Build it when you’ve answered those questions.”
“Identify your weakness or weaknesses and build your team around them. Don’t have a high opinion of yourself based on your turnover that is corporate vanity personified. Thrive on the ability to drive a team to certain agreeable points, enjoy the laughter, the juggle and the struggle. Ask for help, offer help to others, join networks and always keep learning. Admit when you’re wrong, particularly to an employee. You’re only human, and that’s not a weakness, it’s a strength. Celebrate each person’s individuality and swallow the warm tears of joy when you listen to a team member argue against your point as they too feel strongly about a decision your business is set to take. Enjoy that moment as that is then a true organisation that you’re running, where the team are building what once was a bedroom dream and making it a tangible reality.”
“Start! So many do not try out of fear, but realistically, it should it all not go to plan, you simply have to write a new plan. Plans are only guidelines. Your plan will succeed if you analyse it, advertise it, and drive it. So rev up the engine!)”
“Be true to yourself (and help and support women on the way up). Don’t take yourself too seriously; you have nothing to prove “run your own race.”
“Enjoy what you do – know where you want to go, be excited by it so your team can be excited by it, you all need to be going the one direction, you need a team. Face obstacles head on – then move on quickly. You won’t know all the answers – look for help – you will make mistakes, but that’s fine, learn from them and move on
I would say that we shouldn’t differentiate ourselves from aspiring male leaders. This is because I believe that talent will be recognised, but it is vital that we learn to communicate effectively.”
“It’s a cliché, but I think it applies to life in general – be true to yourself and your personality as much as you can – certain traits may get more dialed up due to the nature of being in a leadership role but be conscious of that and try to manage and control it as much as possible.”