In the wake of the “pink wave” in the recent elections, it’s clear that it’s within our power as women to be a powerful force for change, to make the world better. There is a clear opportunity to step up and be heard. To make it happen, we need to answer one key question: How can we convey our messages in a way that makes people want to sit up and listen?
It would certainly be a boon to business. A report from the Peterson Institute found that 30 percent female representation on boards could add up to six percentage points to a company’s net margin. Yet, even when women have a seat at the table, it’s a challenge to be heard.
Carrie Arnold, author of The Silenced Female Leader, discovered this in her research: “When a female leader feels silenced in her role, she only stands a 25 percent chance of recovering without making a job change. These findings indicate voice does not always emerge, or sustain, in executive leadership roles and women need to mitigate the viral effects of feeling silenced to stay effective.”
So, what can we do to ensure that our voices are taken seriously, and that our ideas shape discussions, policies and actions? In my experience as an executive coach, there are three strategies women, and all leaders, can pursue to amplify their impact: 1) hit the “Pause” button; 2) act with a sense of purpose, and 3) ask better questions.
Hit the “Pause” button
It may seem unrelated, but taking some time out for yourself is a critical component of being heard. If you’re in a positive frame of mind, you’re much more likely to convey an inspiring message, and better able to create effective strategies to connect with your audience.
This is a challenge because given the pace of most workplaces, many women leaders find themselves without a moment to breathe all day. This is particularly true for those juggling work and family commitments. The work week can feel like a game of whack-a-mole, with more moments of frustration and irritation than progress or meaning. Even when the schedule is completely jammed, it feels like we’re not keeping up.
When I talk to women who are feeling this way, I ask them to hit the pause button. To step back and look at their situation as if they were watching one of their children or a best friend. Would they ask someone they loved to work the way they’re working? This sometimes leads to a few tears, because from that perspective it’s clear the pace they’re keeping isn’t kind to themselves, or sustainable.
Then I ask them what they like to do for fun. The benefits of exercise are well known, but many women overlook the importance of fun. I often hear that it feels selfish. The fact is, a positive vibe boosts productivity – yours and everyone else’s. We need to make time to goof around with the kids, have dinner with friends, go shoe shopping, cook something amazing, walk on the beach, go to the movies, and watch a sunset.
I encourage women to block off time to breathe during the workday, and to ask themselves whether they really need to be at a meeting before putting it in the calendar. Once a woman starts taking care of herself and having some fun, she becomes far more energizing to be around, more productive and more strategic. That’s a huge boost when it comes to being heard as a leader.
Connect with a Sense of Purpose
With this foundation in place, the next step to being heard is to ask, “How will my leadership make a difference?” This is critical given the challenges women face in being heard. Focusing on something that’s bigger than ourselves can bring a whole new level of confidence.
This is portrayed beautifully in the movie, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep. Meryl plays the part of Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Spoiler alert: Katharine’s voice is repeatedly silenced until she finds a sense of purpose. When the values of her family’s newspaper are threatened, she gains a new level of courage and confidence and is finally heard.
In my coaching work with women executives, I help them identify this sense of purpose, so that they’re in touch with what really matters to them as leaders. Then I encourage them to pause for a second before an important conversation to connect with that purpose and ask themselves, “What difference does this conversation make?” This is both a pragmatic question and a personal one.
Suppose you’re going into a budget meeting. The meeting makes a difference because it’s important to manage spending. This is the pragmatic purpose. It’s necessary to the financial viability of your organization. Keeping this outcome in mind is critical to leading effectively.
Imagine yourself in the same meeting, this time also calling to mind what you want to create as a leader. Hypothetically, let’s make it about helping the people on your team to do great work, learn and grow. Speaking from that perspective, you will have a stronger and clearer voice when it comes to decision-making. And, when you see team members acting in ways that undermine that purpose, this lens allows you to challenge and support them at the same time.
The combination of these two types of purpose in action drives positive leadership behaviors and outcomes.
Ask Better Questions
When you want to get a point across, the questions you ask are your most powerful tool.
In advance of an important conversation, I encourage women to ask themselves a few questions, and to plan an approach based on the answers. Some good questions include: How does my point contribute to the good of this team? Who are the people that I need to back my point of view? What matters to them? How do I need them to feel? Who is likely to take an opposing view? What’s that really about for them?
In the meeting itself, I encourage them to ask questions to others that will elevate the conversation above individual agendas to focus on what matters most. For example, they might ask: What problem are we really trying to solve here? What options haven’t we considered? How will we know if we’re veering off track? How will we know we’re done? Who else needs to weigh in on this before we can decide? How have we addressed challenges like this in the past? How did that work?
Tip: The more fully you’re listening, the better questions you’ll ask. And women are great listeners. Make a point of tuning in to what’s being said, what’s not being said and what’s between the lines as you come up with your questions.
A Final Point . . . Find Courage
I said at the beginning that I had three strategies to be heard, so consider this one a bonus. Actually, it’s the thread that weaves through all real leadership — courage. It takes courage to speak up, and the good news is we don’t have to do it alone. There is confidence in numbers. I encourage the women I work with to find advocates – men and women – who will challenge them to step up and who will actively support them when they do. And I encourage them to give back. More women than ever are in positions of leadership and influence, and we have the power to pull each other up.
For example, consider this common scenario: A woman in a meeting will propose an idea and be ignored or overruled. A man proposing the same idea, however, will earn praise and the group will pause to fully consider the idea. This dynamic is so prevalent that women in one workplace, the Obama White House, took steps to ensure they were all heard. One tactic they adopted was to repeat one another’s points to draw attention to them and ensure men couldn’t claim the ideas as their own. They called it “amplification.”
Staffers noted that over time, the strategy yielded the results they’d been seeking. They were afforded more respect and credit, and high-level staffers sought out and listened to their ideas.
This kind of support and creativity has the power to shift the gender balance and drive positive change. And each of us has a part to play. Start by taking time to pause and refuel yourself. Then connect with your personal sense of purpose to focus on what really matters. Use that sense of purpose as a springboard to ask great questions – of yourself and others – to elevate the conversation. Finally, connect with other women to find courage and support.
Women have everything to gain from speaking up and challenging the way things have always been done. Leadership today and in the future will look very different than it has in the past. Diverse viewpoints and experiences are essential to keeping pace with change. Our voices can completely recast workplace gender dynamics for the benefit of everyone. Let’s empower each other, compel others to pay attention and create better outcomes for the future.