As a woman, I have leadership aspirations. What is the best way to cultivate skills and behaviors to move up the ladder?

Elaine Varelas provides advice to women on moving up the corporate ladder and highlights some of the challenges women face.

Q.  I am looking to advance my career. What are common leadership attributes that I should be aware of and work on? Is there anything that you have seen that holds women back?

A. It is exciting to see a woman taking a proactive approach to advancing your career. Owning your career development is so important – do not be passive is the best lesson here. Developing leadership attributes is exactly what you want to focus on as you climb the ladder. In the lower-level rungs of corporate roles, most responsibilities focus on your functional expertise. Your knowledge of your function and your ability to demonstrate the highest level of expertise in that area is what people want to see at those lower levels, which then propels you to advancement, if people see that desire and drive.

To grow into leadership roles, an entirely new set of skills needs to be demonstrated. There are numerous books out there that are geared towards women leaders that highlight those exact skills. Get: Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons (Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala), Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Herminia Ibarra), How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life (Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston), and How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job (Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith).

In addition to reading, focus on the feedback you receive in any of your performance reviews, or in more casual settings from your leaders. Review the positive first. What do people say are your positive attributes regarding leadership? They may say that you're an excellent communicator, that you are able to influence people to your way of thinking, and that you can motivate others to perform well. Some of the most negative gender stereotypes for women is that they are too direct and that they are not caring.

Often, the behaviors men receive praise for can be construed as negative for women. Women might be called aggressive, the male version could be assertive. Aggressive is seen as a negative, assertive is seen as a positive, and both behaviors might look the same. Get specific feedback and go deep. If you have negative behaviors that you recognize you can develop and make more positive, take every opportunity to be coached. Ask for specifics about what those behaviors would look like and sound like. And recognize that in some environments, those same behaviors might be seen as positive attributes. In fast-growing organizations, being direct and aggressive could absolutely be called for to generate results. Recognize that those behaviors aren't necessarily globally positive or negative but might be very situational.
Being respectful of others is vital.  There are many behaviors you can exhibit but treating people poorly and with no respect will be the end of leadership.  You may get one chance of how you can deliver results, but most organizations will end your leadership role if too many people comment on your inability to treat people well.

The most recent Women in the Workplace report (October 2022) from McKinsey, in partnership with LeanIn.Org, found that female leaders are more frequently the target of microaggressions that can undermine their authority and make it harder for them to advance. The report found that women leaders are twice as likely as men leaders to be mistaken for someone more junior. Being respected is a key to climbing an organization. And the attributes that lead to respect are ones that you can ask questions about within your organization. Again, being respected for your functional expertise, but not your interpersonal skills, is not the position you want to be in. You want to be respected for both. Recognize that leadership qualities are more important and that functional responsibilities are less important as you climb the ladder.

If given the opportunity for a 360-evaluation within your own organization, take advantage of that and scour the data you receive. Management Research Group in Portland, Maine has a lot of data on their website that users can download about behaviors associated with good leadership skills. Continue to ask for feedback. And if you're working on developing a significant skill or a change, continue to ask for feedback from men and women about how you're doing.