I remember the first meeting I attended in my first job at a software company. It was a leadership meeting and about 20 people were there. I was one of only two women in the room, and that fact registered as a blip in my mind as I swallowed my new-hire nervousness. As my career progressed, I realized this wasn’t unusual—I was one of the only women in the room most of the time—and I just needed to get used to it.
That was over two decades ago and a lot of things have changed, but as we all know, women are still annoyingly and stubbornly underrepresented in tech leadership. Many emerging leaders—regardless of gender—ask how they can help tip the scales on this trend. So last week, Women In LogicGate hosted a panel of women executives to share what they’ve learned and provide practical advice to help pave the way for a new generation of (diverse) leaders.
The Path is never straight and it’s not always visible
The panelists all cited career decisions that did not follow a “traditional” linear pattern. Priya Rajagopalan, Chief Product Officer at FourKites, moved from Product Marketing to a much more technical role only after a mentor assured her that a lack of engineering experience wasn’t going to hold her back. Olga Siggins, Corporate Counsel for Northrop Grumman’s Space Sector, is an attorney by trade, but spent time in supply chain and human resources.
The common thread that guided each exec’s decision was the desire to learn something new and better understand different aspects of the business. They were open to new opportunities, and they went for it without looking back. As Priya put it: “go into a new opportunity without preconceived notions; trust that your work ethic and ability to apply yourself to a new area will work.”
Where your attention goes, your energy flows
Operations executive and founder of the WILL, LLC, Jelena Virijevic, specializes in helping women leaders maximize their potential. One of the biggest challenges to women—exacerbated by COVID—is the burnout caused by working too much, being surrounded by distractions, and the tendency to multi-task. Lack of focus causes fatigue, an overall feeling that you’re not doing anything well since you’re trying to do everything at once, and a constant battle with a to-do list that seems to get longer by the minute. COVID adds more to this because we’re isolated, we’re not able to interact in person the way we used to, and we see bad news every day that adds to fear and uncertainty. So, it’s easy to understand why so many people feel stuck, especially now.
The key is to focus on the things you can control, according to Jelena. We can change the stories we tell ourselves, she says. Rather than thinking about how COVID restricts us, focus on what new opportunities may be available because of this change in our world. We can choose to shift our mindset with a little effort. Technology for collaboration and communication is better than it's ever been, and we can choose to see that in a way that’s positive.
Getting mentors doesn’t have to be weird...even if you’re an introvert
People often assume that finding a mentor is like getting set up on a blind date—awkward and a little uncomfortable for everyone involved. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Jelena shared a process she uses that maps out who to connect with based on what you want to learn from them. Being intentional means that you’re not just awkwardly asking someone to be your mentor; instead, you’re asking them about their story and the skills or knowledge they have that you’d like to learn.
The best thing about this approach is that often the “mentor” benefits just as much from the relationship as the “mentee”. Most of our exec panel cited early mentors that are now colleagues and friends. As Olga put it, it comes down to being generally interested in what your mentor is doing, and trying to understand what they know about the organization. She added, the mentor gets the benefit of having someone that they can count on to follow through on what they need you to do, leading to a relationship that builds trust on both sides.
Several of the panelists characterized themselves as introverts, which can make the prospect of reaching out to a potential mentor even more intimidating. However, they also shared that pushing through the initial discomfort is worth it. Gina Ciavarro, Chief Information Security Officer and VP Enterprise Applications at Ankura Consulting, makes it a point to offer mentoring to emerging leaders both on and off her teams, especially to women interested in more technical roles. She observed, “Sometimes it's just relaying things that have been helpful to me, working as a woman in technical roles, being able to share what has helped me along the way, things that have helped me break through feeling like maybe I'm not the right person for a technical position, and how I was able to put myself out there."
Strive for presence, not balance
Trying to achieve balance in work and life 100% of the time is a futile effort. Instead, our panelists encouraged striving for presence. Meaning that whatever you’re doing in that moment, give it your full attention. As Olga put it: “whatever you’re doing, be in that priority. If I’m working, that is my priority. If I’m cooking, that is my priority.” And the best way to foster that habit is to take care of yourself, make sure you’re listening to your body and your feelings and giving yourself what you need.
Many think that work/life balance is more about how you maximize your time. But if you strive for presence, you’ll find it’s about how you maximize your energy and joy. And it’s hard to do with the lack of a routine. Gina had a tough time during the early days of COVID trying to get into the groove at work. She realized that she had been in the habit of using her commute time and her first 25 minutes in the office to “ramp up” for the day. Since she’s now working from home full-time, she adjusted her routine to build in ramp time, and it helped her feel prepared for the day.
Communication is key during COVID...but it has to be the right kind
All of us are grappling with the communication challenges that have arisen from working from home. We can’t show up to meetings assuming that everyone is in a state of ideal mental health and productivity, and without in-person interaction, reading body language is difficult.
For leaders, this can be especially hard. The work needs to get done, and ensuring your teams have the tools, access and empowerment to do their jobs is more important than ever. Priya manages a team that spans the globe, and a 13-hour time difference. In addition to her regular 1:1s, she sets aside early morning “office hours” for her team overseas. Later in the day, she blocks off her calendar for heads-down work and encourages her team to do the same.
Another way leaders are amping up communication and compassion is through the questions we ask our teams. In regular syncs with her team members, Gina asks questions like “how can I help you?” and “what does support look like for you?” Support looks different for everyone, and different people require different types of support depending on the situation, so it’s important to check in on this regularly.
All of these insights can help you take the reins on how you want to show up at work, improve your energy, and be a better leader. Be present, find your routine, look at mentors through the lens of the attributes and skills they have, and communicate in the right way. Each of these are all low-calorie ways of getting a little better at your leadership craft every day. And give yourself a break: it’s OK to eat cereal for dinner once in a while. My favorite is Multi Grain Cheerios.