The Wisdom of Women

 The Wisdom of Women

Lessons Gleaned from Leadership Visionaries

By Jill Griffin

For the past eighteen months I have had the privilege of interviewing a list of amazing women who have risen to the top of their respective fields. These women, executives and movers and shakers, worked their way to the corner office with their dignity intact and their abilities and talents on display for all to see. They are brave, driven and bold enough to believe they can.

Here are some of their most salient nuggets of wisdom and truth.

Champion Your People

One true test of a leader is the ability to retain talent in dire market conditions, as Chief Merchandising Officer Liz Sweney did in 2013, when J.C. Penney (JCP) was thought to be on its last leg. Stores were closing, and the word “bankruptcy” was being tossed around, yet Sweney didn’t lose a single team member.

How did she do it? She offered 10 key principles:

  1. Show unconditional care for and commitment to your team members’ career development.
  2. Work on one developmental goal with each employee. Help them create action plans, then support them. This may mean executive education, personal coaching or mentorship.
  3. Find out what their career goals are, and help them get there, even if it means moving talent to a peer department for development.
  4. When they ask for your opinion, trust them to make the right decision. Let them talk it out and make their own mistakes. Do not over-manage.
  5. Be completely honest and transparent in frequent, on-the-spot feedback. Share with them the good, the bad and the ugly. They’ll appreciate the candor.
  6. Give your employees exposure to senior management, the Board of Directors and peers across the company. Ensure that there are no “blind spots” in the organization.
  7. Have team members define their “personal brand,” so they can begin to understand what actions and behaviors they need to cultivate to climb higher.
  8. Stretch them by giving them additional responsibilities. Show them you have confidence that they will achieve amazing things.
  9. Align stakeholders early about each employee’s merits and career path.
  10. Help your employees imagine how far they can climb and what is possible.

Find A Great Mentor

When climbing the ladder, it’s imperative we find mentors who have our best interest at heart and who have the ability to help us navigate to the role we were meant for. Those mentors need to be unselfish, capable and fair, and they need to be honest about what they see in us.

But what happens when we arrive at the corner office? That job can be lonely unless we seek mentors to help in this new, more demanding role. The requirements for this mentor at this stage of your career are essentially the same: They need to have our best interest at heart; they need to be unselfish, fair and capable; they need to understand the role and give honest advice and feedback.

No matter how high you’ve climbed, there’s someone out there to help. Don’t go it alone.

Be Open To New Ideas

Encourage your people to step out of line and speak up when there’s a better way.

If something isn’t working, we have to be open to alternatives from unexpected sources, just like Maxine Clark was when she was shopping for a stuffed toy with 10-year-old Katie. When they couldn’t find what they wanted, Katie said it would be easy to make their own. Katie had crafts in mind, but what Clark heard was so much bigger: a “workshop” where kids could customize their own bears.

She pursued the idea, and the first Build-A-Bear Workshop opened in 1997 in St. Louis. Today there are more than 400 stores worldwide.

Final Thought: Leaders Versus Managers

Leadership and management, though both critical to a healthy organization, require very different skill sets. Managers carry out orders and get things done, but leaders, regardless of their titles, are visionaries. They think big and inspire people to do the same. They may be afraid from time to time, but they forge ahead, changing the world for the rest of us.

The women I’ve interviewed are incredible examples of leadership, and we need more like them making decisions in c-suites and on boards. There are capable women leaders in every organization. We’ll be better off if we help them climb.

Jill Griffin is an independent public board director; internationally-published, Harvard “Working Knowledge” author; and global thought-leader on customer and staff loyalty.

Jill serves as a Board Director for Luby’s/Fuddruckers Restaurants (NYSE: LUB). She is the author of Women Make Great Leaders: Real-World Lessons to Accelerate Your Climb (July 2017).


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