The Essential Skills and Mindsets to be a Woman in Leadership

March 8, 2024 hr-hrobserver-women-womenleader

Leaders need to have a good team around them, a team in which everyone has bought into the mission and vision and is happy to work to bring this to life – and be visibly supportive of the leader. It simply isn’t possible or desirable for a leader to know everything that happens in their organisation.

A positive aspect of being a leader is that it is never boring, and there are always challenges to keep you on top of your game!

As a leader, the most important communication skill is listening, particularly in a new role when gaining the perspectives of multiple stakeholders. Colleagues appreciate their voices being heard, even if their suggestions or requests can’t be pursued.

Being assertive is also crucial as in a leadership role there will be occasions where you need to make difficult decisions, having access to wider data and from a more strategic perspective. As most organisations now have international operations, whether it is physical buildings in another country, dealing with international organisations or having a culturally diverse workforce, leaders need to ensure the potential benefits are realised.

Where staff and the leadership team are supported to understand the benefits of cross-cultural teams and have opportunities to build up their cultural intelligence, this can positively impact the organisation.

Making difficult decisions is one of the harder parts of the role, and this may be because it is anticipated that they will not be received warmly. Examples can include when internal colleagues apply for a new role and are not successful. Where possible, it is helpful to be able to explain the reasons for the decision – to close the loop. Depending on the nature of wider decisions that are made in the organisation, there will be occasions when you won’t be able to provide feedback on why a decision had to be made.

Negotiation skills can be employed on a daily basis, whether it is in a formal negotiation situation or in directing actions with other stakeholders. Preparation is key so they are confident in their input into the meeting, which may include reviewing data or taking advice from other colleagues. Having a confident mindset is helpful, and on some occasions, it may have to be a projection of confidence where it looks from the outside that this is in hand.

Gathering feedback is always a useful tool, providing it is given in a constructive way. Leaders must accept that there will always be staff who are more cynical about them and their leadership style, which is also fine.

A good level of self-awareness is required to identify where energy should be focused and to aid further development.

Women leaders are much more likely than men to exhibit signs of the imposter phenomenon where they under-play their achievements or attribute it to luck or other people. It is difficult to encourage staff to be more aware and seek opportunities if this is not role-modelled by a leader. In fact, many employees enjoy learning and development sessions where their leader participates as part of a team as it reduces perceptions of power distance.

Self-promotion is a skill that can be very impactful, but women leaders are less likely than men to do this. It can begin in such a way that it becomes part of normal communications e.g. in identifying and sharing examples of good practice and achievements. 

For me, being human is critical and helps to develop relationships. These can be very small tokens such as granting time off for parents to take their child to school on the first day of a new academic year, or sending a handwritten birthday card to every member of staff. 

Further examples of important mindsets include demonstrating calmness in challenging times so as not to cause unnecessary uncertainty amongst teams and individuals. There will be times when resilience is absolutely critical; imagine, for example, at the start of the pandemic where everyone had to think and do things differently.

We need to remember that leaders are people, and they need an outlet to share their concerns or ideas in a safe environment. Personal integrity is also crucial so that colleagues perceive you as a good role model. Whilst it is easy to say in practice, learning when to let go and stop thinking about a situation or the way it was handled will also support the leader in their role.

Professor Fiona Robson

Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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