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How Leaders (and Future Leaders) Should Respond To the 2021 International Women’s Day Challenge

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By Margaret Stuart, Country Manager, Salesforce Canada

A number of years ago I was working for a global software company where I was one of the few women in any kind of leadership role. I remember how, over time, it became clear to me that a lot of people in meetings were spending more time thinking about what they were going to say next, rather than listening to those around them.

At the same time, I realized I was putting myself in a “backstage” role. I would think to myself, “I could have said that — I thought of the same idea 10 minutes ago.” But nobody saw me as having those big ideas, because I wasn’t putting myself out there enough.

Eventually, this changed my thinking on what I would bring to leadership. How would I be faster in formulating my position on an issue, and how could I create an environment where there would be a lot more listening — where everyone’s voices are heard?

When I heard this year’s International Women’s Day theme of “Choose to Challenge,” I interpreted it in two ways. We must choose to challenge ourselves to listen for those female leaders in our midst. And if we’re women, we must choose to challenge ourselves to speak up about our own interests and aspirations.

Listening Deeply And Accepting Honest Feedback

Today, I try to meet that first challenge through a practice I’ve developed where, at regular intervals, I gather a handful of members from our team to have a social conversation. It’s a way of networking and bringing folks together from across Canada, and it’s an opportunity to hear diverse voices.

To listen deeply means finding people who don’t just tell me the things I want to hear, but need to hear. My personal “board of directors” includes coworkers, professional mentors as well as some of my oldest friends, who aren’t afraid to be brutally honest with me. Being successful as a leader requires you don’t just pay attention to filtered information, but information from a wide variety of sources.

This was a critical lesson I learned when I moved from working as an engineer to roles in marketing and sales. As an engineer, everything is very black and white. You always have to be right. Otherwise, to give just one example, your transistor is not going to work on the motherboard to which you’ve soldered it.

In other business functions, and particularly as you move into a leadership role, the goal isn’t always to be right. You don’t have to know the answer to everything.

You just have to be confident enough in the people with whom you’ve surrounded yourself that you can trust they will deliver results — even if they might deliver results in a way that’s totally different from how you would have. You only gain that confidence and trust when you listen well.

Choosing To Challenge Yourself

My curiosity about how businesses run and what made various industries tick provoked my interest in moving beyond a specialized, technical focus in my career. But I also had to be intentional about making others aware of that interest.

That’s where the second challenge comes in. Your sponsors and mentors can be miracle workers, but they do not mind readers.

Choosing to challenge yourself also means putting yourself out there, even when you’re not fully confident about the good things that will happen. I still experience this as a leader today.

Around this time last year, I was asked to present at a meeting for a professional group that focuses on empowering immigrants who are contributing to Canada’s business sector. At the time, I wasn’t feeling the most confident about it but I accepted.

Fast-forward 11 months, and I was asked if I would interview the former President of Ireland when she came to speak to the same group. An opportunity like that would not have happened if I hadn’t challenged myself to say yes.

I’d also suggest choosing to challenge yourself by looking past traditional definitions of “successful businesses” and making sure you align yourself with organizations that share your values. For me, that means working for a company that values community, kindness, trust, and courage.

For other women, it may be a different set of qualities, but ask yourself: what values do you honor? What values resonate with you most deeply? What values help you to be your best self?

And when the answers come to you, it’s time to listen just as deeply as you would to others, to recognize the honest feedback you’re giving yourself, and to make your next set of career choices accordingly.

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