According to the US Department of Labor, there are 74.6 million women in the civilian labor force and almost 47 percent of U.S. workers are women. More than 39 percent of women work in occupations where they make up at least three-quarters of the workforce. Yet women only represent 17 percent of executive — or the so-called “C-suite” — positions, a number that has remained largely unchanged for more than a decade. That number drops to only 4 percent when speaking about women that are Fortune 500 CEOs.
What’s perhaps even more disheartening than the inequality these numbers represent is that when it comes to achieving gender parity in the C-suite, the opportunities that women have to learn from other women who have shattered the glass ceiling are few and far between. For Carol Seymour, Founder of Signature Leaders, Founding Member of Paradigm 4 Parity℠, a movement of CEOs, senior executives, board members, and business academics committed to achieving gender parity at the senior levels of all major corporations by 2030, and author of Wisdom Warriors: Journeys through Leadership and Life, this injustice is one that cannot be allowed to stand. I recently had the chance to speak with Seymour about her book and the priorities for women business leaders.
Mark Fadden (MF): “Tell us about the inspiration for your book and the program behind it, Signature Leaders. When did you first recognize and begin to answer an unmet need among women climbing up the ranks of management?”
Carol Seymour (CS): “It’s well documented that companies with gender diverse executive teams create greater financial value than companies with homogeneous ones. And yet, most companies lose 50 percent of their top female talent between the VP level and the executive level. The Signature Program was launched in late 2013 at the request of more than a dozen global heads of HR who were frustrated that the percentage of women in leadership had not changed despite their best efforts at promoting diversity within their respective companies.
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“One of the key dynamics of the program involves bringing in highly regarded and experienced top executives as Faculty and Panelists. Their stories are candid, honest, and often vulnerable. As I watched these exchanges happen, I wanted more than just the 40 people sitting in the room to benefit. Wisdom Warriors was inspired by these conversations and written so that these stories could inspire more leaders to stay true to themselves, grow in their leadership brand, and then share their own stories.”
MF: “Why do you place top priority on authenticity for women aspiring to excel as leaders? Do women struggle more than men with determining their own self-worth and developing self-confidence in their leadership strengths?”
CS: “Authenticity, being true to who we really are, is the most important anchor of leadership. We need to make decisions based on our core values and lead with our unique gifts so our people know what to expect from us in good and bad times. If we act and operate how we think others want to see us, it creates inconsistencies and causes confusion. And it wastes a lot of our energy trying to be something we are not! We erode trust and leaders need to be trusted to create a following and achieve their vision.
“There is a lot of research regarding women’s lack of self-confidence, and enough evidence to highlight the struggles. At the core, lack of self-confidence stems from the need to be a perfectionist. A great example is that if an HR Executive says that five qualities are needed to apply for a promotion, generally, a woman will not apply if she doesn’t have all five, whereas a man will apply if he can show that he has at least two of five. As women, we must have the confidence to say, “I can learn the rest of these things on the job” or “I know how to build a great team to fill the holes where I am not an expert.” There is a pivotal point in the leadership curve where you need to let go of trying to be perfect, and allow your team to step up and fill the gap. Striving for perfectionism means we set our goals too low to make sure we hit them. It also keeps us from taking risks so we don’t fail. But without risking and, sometimes, failing, we can’t learn to bounce back, and we certainly won’t grow.”
MF: “Throughout Wisdom Warriors, powerful women emphasize the importance of being intentional. In practical, work-related terms, what does being intentional mean? How does being intentional about all aspects of life increase a leader’s effectiveness?”
CS: “Being intentional means making conscious choices and not allowing your career to be a happy (or unhappy) accident. For leaders, I would highlight three areas where intentionality can immediately make a big impact. First, be intentional about your aspirations. You must be intentional about what you aspire to, but then don’t sit back and wait for it to come to you — go ask for it. Second, be intentional about your needs and your wants. If you spend time preparing your children for bed each night between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., then make it known that time is not available for your team in Asia or for responding to emails. Being intentional about the time you take for all aspects of life reduces the stress and anxiety of never being or doing enough for others. Third, be intentional about advancing critical relationships. Connection [through conversation] doesn’t just happen because you work in proximity to each other. Setting expectations on the outcome you would like to achieve makes for a richer, more robust conversation. It cuts out clutter and creates a more beneficial exchange. Being intentional about building relationships both inside and outside the company is critical for your continued success.”
MF: “You devote a section of Wisdom Warriors to the topic of peace. Why do you urge women in powerful positions to make time for recovery, for play, and for sleep? How can women executives sustain a healthy work-life balance?”
CS: “Performing well in an executive role requires a great deal of energy and the ability to sustain that energy throughout the day, week, month, and year after year. Big capacity roles require the ability to set boundaries, say “no,” and take care of yourself so that you have the energy to give to your work, your team, and your family. Peace is all about creating the space to renew that energy store.
“I love the analogy of the airplane oxygen mask. In the safety briefing, the flight attendant tells you that if the oxygen mask should fall from the ceiling, you should put your own mask on before helping others. As a parent, I couldn’t possibly imagine putting the mask on myself before I put it on my child. But the message is clear. You are no good to others if you aren’t good to yourself first.”
MF:”Is there a message or lesson you would most like women to embrace after reading Wisdom Warriors?”
CS: “My intent for the book has always been that it becomes a vehicle to spark conversation and sharing of experiences and stories. So many of the women that raised their hands to be in the book wondered if their stories had value for others. I have discovered that being a powerful woman has nothing to do with your title. These Wisdom Warriors embrace opportunities. They are present and authentic and intentional. And I have learned the very ordinary of one’s story can be the spark needed to make another’s story extraordinary. The book is consistently passed along, like a torch. And for so many, it seems to happen at the most perfect time.”
For more information on Wisdom Warriors: Journeys through Leadership and Life and to order a copy, visit https://signatureleaders.com/wisdomwarriorsbook/