Today’s generation of women leaders are a force to be reckoned with. Even amid the pandemic and the incredible upheaval that the economy has experienced in the last few years, women in various industries are doing life-changing work in Nebraska and beyond.
Their ability to step into their calling as leaders is admirable and shows that there is nothing holding them back. Aspiring female leaders are seeing this great work and are following in their footsteps.
Today’s business climate is unlike any other. The world is working its way out of a pandemic that temporarily halted business growth for companies around Nebraska, and the world. Businesses both large and small are still grappling with large numbers of people who have exited the workplace for the short or long-term.
Yet, despite those challenges, leaders – regardless of gender – have had to rely on some similar core leadership qualities: effective communication, responsibility and the ability to see the big picture.
Women are showing that they can bring their full authentic selves to the workplace, and this is part of the recipe of accelerating company growth in a distinct way.
Nancy Williams, co-founder of No More Empty Pots and advisory board member for GROW Nebraska, said she believes that there are a few key things that female business leaders should rely on in today’s business landscape.
“The most important quality for me is trust,” she shared. “Empathy is huge. Love is paramount. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a difference in your relationship with yourself and others. If I cannot trust someone, then it is difficult for me to be vulnerable, share, delegate and work with them.
“In my opinion, we cultivate more women leaders by being our whole selves authentically everywhere, where we can see that it is okay to learn from things that are not going as expected, and that we can celebrate our wins and each other’s wins…that we can take up space and that we can hold space for each other.”
At the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN), Amy McLaughlin, vice president of programs and operations, explained that they teach four key qualities that leaders should possess: collaboration, compassion, confidence and creativity.
“Leaders who possess [these traits] are more likely to successfully lead their teams and companies through an ever changing and complex business climate,” she said. “Given the events of recent years, it has become increasingly important for leaders and managers to hone in on collaboration practices in hybrid work environments, find new systems…and respond to the increased digitalization of business practices.”
Liz Kerrigan, senior director of leadership development at Greater Omaha Chamber, believes that leaders are most effective when they are self-aware. Oftentimes, becoming self-aware takes practice – a conscious effort to reflect inwardly on what your unique strengths and characteristics are and how they can serve the company or organization you are a part of.
“Leaders need to have a good understanding of who they are, what they are good at and what they want,” Kerrigan explained. “There are several leadership assessment tools to help leaders understand their abilities and capitalize on being their most authentic selves. I recommend Clifton Strengths, Enneagram, and Emergenetics.”
For young women just starting out or for those that have their eyes set on the C-suite of a corporation, it is no secret that it will take hard work and dedication to make it there. In fact, a 2020 Pew Research Center statistic showed that only 7.4% of women hold CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies. But that doesn’t have to hold back anyone with a vision to get there.
“My advice for aspiring women leaders is to get engaged and show up,” Kerrigan said. “Be a reliable committee member who attends all meetings. Be a responsive co-worker who completes tasks on time. Be a volunteer who does what she says she is going to do. At the same time, be honest with your limits and commit when you know you can deliver.”
McLaughlin encouraged women to be fearless and take ownership of their careers.
“Don’t be afraid to move laterally in your career and go after or create stretch assignments that show your range and desire to move ahead,” she explained. “Be sure to get exposure to as many parts of the business as you can, and network both in your community and internally across your organization.
“If you have a broad understanding of your company dynamics, along with a deep understanding of yourself and your strengths, the sky is the limit. I had a mentor that always told her staff to take your career in to your own hands – only you can own and create your career trajectory.”
Williams speaks from experience as an entrepreneur and dedicated changemaker.
“I would say start with being a leader where you are,” she recommended. “Trust yourself. Every person whether working alone, within an organization, on a team or within a community has the opportunity to lead. Take the steps to know for yourself what you love and what you have to offer and the impact that you want to see.
“Then figure out how to lead from where you are. Those initial opportunities will help you get clarity about your gifts and what makes you excited every day. You can then connect with mentors, folks in your networks and other leaders to expand on that growth and impact.”
She continued by saying that when you truly find out what you’re passionate about and start putting down roots, others will see it and want to follow along.
“I have found when you are living your passion, others see it and the opportunities will start to come to you. You will not have to chase it. You do the work and that tends to attract more opportunity. And sometimes you have to promote and advocate for yourself. Believe in you first and share your story with those who deserve to hear it. Your story matters.”
Aron Wehr of the Greater Omaha Chamber shared that according to Census data, 19% of businesses in the Omaha metro area are owned by women. In addition, Census data shows that across the United States, women-owned employer firms reported nearly $1.8 trillion in sales, shipments, receipts or revenue and employed over 10.1 million workers with an annual payroll of $388.1 billion in 2018.
This information demonstrates that women are doing big things in their industries of expertise. As with any good leader, being a continual learner and showing a willingness to adapt and build on their leadership skills is an important part of career and company success.
McLaughlin said that no matter what stage of your career that you are in – seasoned or just starting out – doing your part to enhance your leadership skills is worth every minute invested. ICAN offers a variety of training programs that help women become more well-rounded leaders in all parts of their career journey.
“Through our research and conversations at ICAN, we understand that soft skills are more important than ever to develop,” she said. “Emotional intelligence, effective communication styles, showing compassion on the job, having conversations about ethics and values, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues are essential for leaders to understand and display in our current business environment.”
ICAN also provides leadership coaching and other customized programs, as well as half-day workshops that can be helpful in building teams. Ultimately, this helps leaders of all ages become more intentional about their contribution to the workplace.
“Investing time and dedication in leadership development of individuals and teams is key and can be pivotal to an organization’s pipeline of talent, employee retention, and business growth,” she said.
The Greater Omaha Chamber is another local resource that provides regular development programs, initiatives and events to cultivate strong leaders. There are also annual conferences, such as the YP Summit and the CODE Conference. Additionally, the Leadership and CODE Education Series are popular for leaders in the area.
Williams noted the importance of networking and having a mentor that can help walk alongside you.
“Having a coach and being in leadership development that offers coaching has been a game changer for me,” she shared. “With a good coach, I have been able to get guidance as well as validation. This has been super helpful in decision making and learning to trust myself more.
“Networking is important in developing relationships and learning about ourselves and each other. We all depend on each other to get things done. Networking can be a casual and social tool with purposeful intention that supports cultivation of our communication and relationship building skills. It can also help us to embrace ourselves and celebrate others.”
McLaughlin agreed, saying that networking is two-fold: it is effective to have both personal and professional networks. Having both not only creates connections to move up the ladder, but for the support and encouragement you need to get there, too.
“Networking is important for women, especially those interested in becoming a leader in their organization and industry. Well-built professional and personal networks can be extremely effective and powerful in assisting with career advancement,” she said.
“A professional network can help you identify career opportunities, build a successful and powerful team, help you work through your organization’s changes and obstacles and stay on top of industry trends. A personal network can provide support and guidance, be used to exchange ideas and information and further strengthen your communication skills.”
Last, for those people who are in leadership roles, it is important to pave the way and create a place for others to rise up and take their place.
“To cultivate women leaders, it’s important for established leaders to make space and empower women,” Kerrigan said. “Including women when evaluating hiring/promotion practices, development opportunities and cultural policies is an effective way to uncover obvious and not-so-obvious norms that may be preventing women from achievement. Representation is vital to realizing success.”