Whether you’re a sustainability professional or not, knowing your worth can mean the difference between a budding career and a static one. For women – who represent more than half of today’s entry-level hires but decrease in number as they climb the corporate ladder – developing personal and professional leadership skills that empower you to show your value is especially important.
As one study shows, while women outnumber men at the early stages of their careers, that number declines to 37 percent when individuals are promoted to managers, and drops to 26 percent at the vice president and senior executive level; only 14 percent of executive committee spots are held by women, and only about 4.6 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are female. That gap is even wider for women of color.
While today’s women’s leadership gap is complex, at the center of the divide is often an individual’s struggle with understanding, communicating and sharing their value with others. Often times the simple act of networking can help one jump those hurdles to career success. We spoke with expert networker and professional development facilitator Sarah Michel, the creator of the NetWORTHing process and author of "Perfecting Connecting: A Personal Guide to Mastering Networking in the Workplace," who shared valuable insights on what it means to be a leader – for oneself and others. Michel will be speaking at the upcoming Women's Leadership Conference in Las Vegas.
TriplePundit: What does being a leader mean to you?
Sarah Michel: A leader is someone who opens doors for people. Mentoring is not my favorite word – my favorite word is sponsoring. When you sponsor someone, you create opportunities for people, and those people will then pass it on and open doors for others. As a woman, I think the more we can open doors for other women, the better. Good leaders are constantly developing people.
3p: How has your understanding of personal leadership changed or evolved throughout the years?
SM: When I've been in leadership roles, I’ve always looked for people who are smarter than me. I like to surround myself with really smart people, and I've been thrilled when people on my teams have really shined. It’s been great to know that I've been a part of that; that's really rewarding for me. I'm a huge team person and have always been very collaborative, because honestly it's so much more fun. I don't hire people who always agree with me, because I think the best decisions are made when different perspectives go into making a decision. It's about having a collaborative team effort and letting individual people's light shine. I'm not a leader who likes to sit in a room and make decisions on my own. That's how it's really evolved for me.
3p: What role does personal leadership play in networking and career advancement?
SM: Networking is not about giving out more business cards; it's about living your life as a hub. My personal leadership is thinking that I live in the hub of my network – where I'm constantly introducing people in my network and connecting them. Nothing makes me happier than to be somebody who connects people who end up working together, doing business together, even going out together. I love being a resource to people and not expecting anything in return.
I think great leaders have high influence – they can get people to return a call, return an email. When you have influence, you have access. Influence and access, that's all you need for your career. But you have to treat it with the respect it deserves. And you constantly need to be making deposits. I really like that Zig Ziglar quote, "You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.”
3p: How do you balance "work and life," and what skills are required to be a leader who has a well-balanced life?
SM: I've been really fortunate that for the last 15 years I’ve had my office out of my home. I have two daughters (one is about to graduate from college and the other in high school) … and because I've worked for myself, I've been able to carve out time when I needed to be in school. I've always taken four to six weeks of vacation a year. When I’ve worked on projects, I’ve always worked with people who are flexible, and know I’ll get the job done, even if it means taking off some time during the week and working on the weekends to get it done.
3p: What about someone who's in a job that doesn't allow that flexibility?
SM: All the years I’ve been doing this, what it boils down to is that men ask, and women don't. If you're in a situation where you're in a 9-5, you can ask for that flexibility or constantly be looking for opportunities to earn the trust needed to get that flexibility. Look for ways to grow your network internally within your company, to share your value. Step up to plan the annual meeting, look for opportunities to meet key leaders. The more you can grow your net worth, the more your opportunities go up for promotion.
Also, be constantly keeping your boss informed of your accomplishments. If you get a compliment form a client, send it to your boss – it’s not about bragging or being modest. Just send on the compliment; it’s a fact.
3p: How do you help young leaders (men and/or women) develop in their careers?
SM: I'm actively doing that with my daughter right now, who's about to enter the job market. What I say to her and what I say to other women is: When you look at a job description, realize that it's a wish list. Most employers are really just looking for someone who has a good attitude, is willing to learn and has a good work ethic. What's very hard to find is a really good person who is reliable, honest – if you've got those things, apply, and that will get you in the door.
When I applied to a job once, they were looking for someone with a master’s degree, and people with Ph.Ds were applying. I didn't even think about that fact because I knew I had the practical work experience and had a lot to offer, and I ended up beating out the other people. Qualifications are all relative when you're able to present yourself in a way that shows you can provide an answer to their pain point, or are you're willing to put the time and effort to learn how to solve their problem.
Want to hear more? Attend the Women's Leadership Conference at MGM Grand in Las Vegas July 13-14.
Nayelli is the Founder & CEO of Creators Circle, a nonprofit working to close opportunity gaps for future generations of impact changemakers. A trained journalist with an MBA, she also keeps the pulse on sustainable business and social impact trends and has covered these topics for a variety of publications over the past decade. She’s a systems thinker who loves to learn, share knowledge and help others connect the dots. Follow her on Twitter @NayelliGonzalez.