Have you ever played the game “Which one doesn’t fit?” Ask any female leader and their answer is sure to be – absolutely! They are all too familiar with this game because most likely they have found themselves in situations where they’re the ones that don’t fit. It has dawned on them at some point in their career that they are the minority, the one that doesn’t fit, the odd “man” out. I’m not suggesting that this is something that dominates the thinking of current female leaders, but I’m certain it has crossed their minds many times.
I have experienced many moments like this in my career which has been spent in some very male dominated fields: finance, technology and of course insurance. Early on, I often realized that not only was I the only female in the meeting, conversation or board room, I was also the youngest person by 15+ years. Most recently, I found myself in a room full of some of the most incredible agent leaders I will ever know. As the meeting was about to begin, the man sitting next to me quietly pointed out that I was the only female in the room, as if I hadn’t noticed.
These occasions where I, or others have noticed that we are the sole female in the situation cut both ways. For instance, I can’t help but be incredibly honored to be in that position both early in my career and still to this day. On the contrary, I’m disappointed that we still live in a society where this gap still exists. Moments like this are fleeting, they don’t dominate my thinking because I’ve formed my relationships, made my way and am focused on leading our organizations to success. I often wonder what impact this reality has on future female leaders and that’s what inspired me to share some advice from not only myself but others that I consider the strongest female leaders I know.
Ignore the statistics
Leaders are never victims, so the first thing you should do is ignore all of the current statistics. Do not spend any time, energy or attention focusing on the fact that women are in the minority in leadership roles today because you have the ability to change the statistics. Instead focus all of your energy on becoming the most informed, hardest working and best cultural leader in your organization. If you place your focus in these areas, you are far more likely to move into a leadership role. You have the ability to create leadership opportunities for yourself based on your skills, attitude and grit. Focusing on anything else can be detrimental to your success.
Find as many Mentors as possible – and listen
Seek out the advice and guidance of as many mentors as you can find – male or female. Mentors are people that truly care about your professional and personal growth. They are the ones that are willing to take the extra time and provide you with feedback, advice and criticism that may be hard to hear but will ultimately make you better. Be open enough to recognize a mentor, often they come to us when we least expect it. If you only are focused on finding the type of mentor that you have envisioned, you might miss the mentor that is right in front of you. If you remain open and can accept constructive criticism even when it hurts, the lessons a mentor shares are invaluable. Once you find a good mentor – listen to them. Bev Barney, CEO, Michigan Association of Insurance Agents and Jeanie Geisler, USI Insurance Services
Be true to yourself
Stand by your beliefs even when your opinion is different than everyone else’s opinion in the room. The diversity of thinking is one of the most valuable things we all bring to every situation we face. When you’re defining yourself as a leader, how you share your beliefs is as important as staying true to them. It is important that we all appreciate there are differing opinions, share our thoughts and respectfully disagree in a productive manner. Remember, others are learning just as you are on how to make their way in the work environment. Be true to your convictions yet remember not to force your beliefs on others. Strive to be even-keel in your discussions which will exude confidence and ultimately demonstrate your strong leadership abilities. Katie Berry, Owner at Insurance Agencies of Ohio, and Jeanie Geisler, USI Insurance have both beautifully demonstrated this as strong female leaders on the Ohio Insurance Association (OIA) Board of Directors.
Find common ground
Angela Kurlich, Principle, Angle Insurance Solutions refers to the all-male Board of Directors as her “band of brothers,” as she reminisces on her experience joining the OIA board in the 90’s. “When I first came on the board, back in the late 90's, the guys were all concerned that I was prim and proper and that they would have to be on their 'good behavior'. It was clear to me that they thought serving with a woman would change the dynamic in the room, but that didn't last long. During a fairly intense conversation, I shared my views with same level of conviction and passion they had and from then on, this particular group viewed me as one of the guys and became my 'band of brothers.'" Her advice: Treat the men you work with as though they are your brothers; let them see your professionalism as a leader, but also let them see your humor, your passion and your intellect – these are the things that we have in common and value in each other. It is possible to be "one of the guys" without giving up your femininity and still being your authentic self.
Don’t participate in the bias
The last advice I’d give to the future female leaders is – believe in your abilities and the abilities of the future leaders around you. This is not a competition; it is a movement and we need to be champions of all the great leaders, male or female, whenever and wherever we can. Create a network that you can depend on, participate in and learn from. Surround yourself with the people that challenge you to think differently, push you to consider things you wouldn’t otherwise and that will disagree with you – those are the people who will make you better! Be generous with your ideas and share them so you can help others grow. There are brilliant minds that we encounter every day – recognize them, appreciate them and celebrate them.
I feel very fortunate to have the most amazing network of mentors, colleagues and friends that have helped me grow into the person I am today. They are the single biggest reason that I have had the opportunities to break the glass ceiling in countless rooms on countless occasions, and for that I will be forever grateful.
I close with the wisdom of one of my mentors, Jeanie Geisler — “You are never too young to be a leader, and never too old to learn new things.” I look forward to seeing the next generation of female leaders close the gender gap even further, and I will be there to champion you upward to shatter your glass ceilings.
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