March 2023 | Q&A Spotlight

What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Female Leader

What advice would you give your younger self? A few of our female leaders explain what they’ve learned in their roles.

What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Female Leader

March is Women's History Month—and as a people-first organization with a heavy focus and implementation of inclusion and diversity, we see our women leaders as pillars of success.

Through our Women Leadership Network (WLN) and other firm-wide initiatives, we help foster intersectionality and leadership growth of all women and female-identifying individuals.

We asked established and emerging female leaders across the firm for their thoughts on their career journey and what they wish their younger selves knew before stepping into leadership positions.

What's the best advice you have ever received? Who gave it to you—and how did you apply it?

Casey Foss: When I began my career as an analyst, I stayed late one night to finish a report during my first few months on the job. I struggled with getting the report together and was emotional, exhausted, and frustrated as I sat at my desk. Little did I know one of my manager's close friends was also in the office and reached out to the manager to tell her about the stress I was under.

The next day, my manager approached me and asked how putting together the report had gone. I lied and said everything was fine. She knew I wasn't telling the truth and called me out. She said, "No one will know you need your help unless you say something. You aren't going to know everything, and reaching out and asking for guidance isn't anything to be ashamed of. It’s encouraged to make you a better analyst and team player."

Elli Rader: Don't fit in! I've spent a lot of time having imposter syndrome; others would say the antidote to imposter syndrome is to blend in or be like everyone else. But over the years of my career, I realized that isn't true. I’m proud of who I am and the experiences I’ve grown from, so being myself is the only option that has proven to be my strength when challenging homogeneous thinking.

Iman Kialeuka-Tiya: Be an advocate for yourself. As a Black woman or double minority, it's easy to walk into spaces and be discouraged when the room doesn't look like you. I found myself in many positions like this where I had to speak up for myself when I knew no one else would. I am my biggest fan and when I act like it, the benefits of my actions come shortly after. I refuse to be silenced or minimized in any way.

How are you creating more seats at the table for women?

Casey Foss: The first thing I always ask women is what seat they want at the table. Once I understand what she wants out of her career, it makes it easier for me to walk into spaces and mention their name. Then, when connecting with new women colleagues for the first time, I often ask what kind of impact they want to deliver, what matters to them, and what challenges they’re facing and need support with. Once I have those answers, I keep my eyes and ears open to opportunities where I could throw their name in the ring or invite them to events to get exposure. It's all about seeking out an opportunity and finding the right person.

Elli Rader: I'm lucky enough to be able to lead a specialty area within PXEL. There are about 400 people in West Monroe’s PXEL team, and I have a seat at the table of the leadership of that practice. That means I have many opportunities to advocate for women.

When we start discussing initiatives that need to be done or goals that need to be tackled, we begin to think of who on your team would be best for the job. I seek to mention folks who may not have their names mentioned in meetings often or whose work often makes a quieter impact than others.

Iman Kialeuka-Tiya: For me, making a seat at the table means offering guidance and encouragement to those who have expressed interest in being a leader—and even those who haven't! People are sometimes afraid to advocate for themselves; however, when I see an emerging leader, I offer what I can to support them in their career journey. Seeing opportunities and bringing up names in rooms where no one else would have thought to bring them up comes down to me.

What do you do when you feel your ideas aren't being heard?

Casey Foss: There are a few strategies I have learned over the years that come to mind:

  1. Ask questions. Understand the why behind being ignored and dig deeper with your colleagues. Did the idea not align with the business goals or is it else that needs to be addressed between me and that person?
  2. Lead with empathy. Ask yourself if you are communicating with this person effectively for their own process. What barriers need to be addressed to move forward cohesively?
  3. Remain authentically you. Don't try to emulate someone else's style or communication tactics. It won't work. Be who you are and show up as yourself...that is the easiest way to convey your message.
  4. Get others on board with your idea. Sharing your idea with others and getting them onboard drives forward movement!

Elli Rader: Whether you see yourself represented in leadership, be a leader. Be loud, be bold, and be yourself. Continuously advocate for yourself. Not every idea you have will be heard, and that's OK—but making sure you bring up your ideas and don't get discouraged is the most important thing.

Also, ask for help. Reach out to leaders you look up to and ask about the personalities in the room. Is there a different way I should speak to this person to get what I want? What motivates them, and how can I use that to advocate for what I want? Asking these questions can significantly impact what people hear when sharing a new idea.

Iman Kialeuka-Tiya: As a double minority, it's hard for me not to stand out in a room—and I try to use that to my advantage. I have found my voice over the years, and it has helped me grow my confidence when entering spaces where I know my ideas might not be accepted or ignored.

How has mentorship played a role in your success as a leader?

Casey Foss: I wrote an article on mentorship in Forbes a few years back. I wrote about how you shouldn't focus on just having women mentors, but also men to have a mix of perspectives. Specifically, white men have been able to create seats for themselves at the table for years, and learning their secrets is a complete game-changer. Working with a male mentor is a great way to gather a perspective different from your own and learn how a man does things. This knowledge makes it easier to go into spaces with other men (and women) and know how they will react to something I am saying or doing to get better results.

Elli Rader: I had a male mentor in a previous position, and he truly believed in me and my abilities. He was genuinely invested in my career and interested in growing me professionally. He taught me how to learn from my mistakes and use those mistakes as learning opportunities to develop my abilities and build new skills. I learned how to be a leader through his actions and business perspective.

Iman Kialeuka-Tiya: My mentors have helped me through situations I may have never been through or are uncomfortable navigating alone, but they probably have. I have learned from my mentors’ mistakes and their guidance.

Also, having mentors who can be your sounding board is essential to your growth as a leader. They are an ear to help talk through a scenario or a situation. They are also there to affirm you in your thinking and the decision you make.

What are three traits every leader should have to support women?

Casey Foss: Have empathy—the willingness to listen and understand someone's story and how it’s shaped them into who they are as a human is vital.

Create a culture of advocacy. That starts with trust and being willing to be uncomfortable. When we’re uncomfortable, we grow the most. Ask what you can do for women when a woman isn't usually heard.

Having a transparent relationship when working with anyone is vital. Call them out, call them in, but always be honest about whatever situation they might be in and how to navigate it to be successful. ”

Elli Rader: Be open-minded. I've been told that I come off aggressive when it's not aggression; it's ambition and I work hard. But people perceive ambition in women differently than they perceive it in men. So leave your stereotypes at the door and be conscious of your bias.

Be humble. You aren't going to be right all the time, and that's OK. Being honest about where you’re at and where you want to be as a leader is so important for those around you observing you. You don't need all the answers, but what’s most important is being willing to learn.

Be an active listener. Pause your thoughts and listen to what the person is trying to say, relate to them, and understand their experience. It's probably different from your own.

Iman Kialeuka-Tiya: Always seek opportunities for others when they aren't in the room. Have empathy for other stories and experiences. Continue to learn and educate yourself on others' experiences and hold space for them.

To learn more about how West Monroe supports female leaders, check out our Women's Leadership Network to expand your understanding.

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