The workplace of today is vastly different than it was even a couple years ago, but there are still many obstacles that impede employees, particularly women, from thriving in their jobs, ultimately disrupting success in other areas of life. Michelle Speranza, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at LEAF Commercial Capital, spoke with Monitor about how leaders can create work environments that support employees and all of who they are.
What can leaders do to support the women who work for them?
Michelle Speranza: I think one of the best things any leader can do for women on their teams is to first understand that due to their experiences inside the workplace, as well as outside it, many women have a hard time speaking up. For a lot of them, it just hasn’t been encouraged in the way needed by someone who’s perhaps less confident than they might be if they were given the right support. And when they do speak up, past experience means a lot of women replay what they said over and over, looking for ways it might have come off too assertive, or too emotional, or not emotional enough, or something else. Clearly, all this second-guessing benefits no one, not the women themselves, not the teams they’re part of and not the leaders of a company looking to get the best out of its people. So, I think it’s especially valuable to women when leaders make a point of encouraging them to confidently and openly make their authentic voices heard and making sure they have space to do that.
How can leaders ensure that the people on their teams make their voices heard in the workplace?
Speranza: One of the best things a leader can do is to let their team know they should stop waiting to be called on. Encourage them — challenge them, even — to speak up, be heard and bring all the value they can bring to the table. I strongly believe in having your people go beyond their self-imposed limitations. Whether taking on important projects, joining committees, or delivering presentations to a broader audience, challenges like these ultimately develop your people to be their best selves. And that can make a positive impact on all areas of their lives.
What advice would you give to a woman who is afraid to speak up at work?
Speranza: Remember, you are your own best advocate. Speak up to find allies, supporters and those that challenge you to get outside your comfort zone. You may think being silent is safer, but that’s not the key to developing yourself professionally. Safer isn’t going to get your ideas heard, your opinions valued, or your presence requested. And how safe is that, really? You have to find ways to get out of your comfort zone because that’s the only place you will grow.
Start small: Challenge yourself to overcome this fear by saying one thing during a meeting. Then challenge yourself to say two things during the next meeting and so on. Each time you push past your discomfort, your confidence will grow. Don’t miss opportunities for growth for fear that what you have to say can wait or isn’t necessary. You were hired for a reason. Your unique voice is essential, and by staying silent, you are depriving everyone of your perspective and your talents. Challenge yourself and see what happens.
How can leaders play a role in helping the women on their teams achieve their life goals, both inside and outside of the office?
Speranza: If you want to be part of helping women on your team achieve their goals, one of the most effective things you can do is share your own personal and work goals and what you’re doing to go after them in an integrated way. Show them how it looks for you, and they may start thinking about how it could look for them and how they might get there. Get them talking about their goals inside and outside the office, and if you can offer any kind of encouragement or support, such as something like company-sponsored training, don’t miss your chance to help people on your team write their own success stories.
How can women in leadership positions act as role models and mentors to women who want to lead well-rounded, successful lives?
Speranza: I think this comes down to fostering openness in your relationships across your team. Let them have a peek inside your life, not just your work life, but all your life. Share what’s worked for you and what hasn’t, where you’ve succeeded and where you’re still working toward success and what it’s meant to have people in your corner and how you can be that for them. For me, it also helps to remember that leadership is an act of service, and one of the most important ways to serve is making an effort to model the attitudes and actions that can help the women on your team realize their full potential.
Work/life integration can be challenging, particularly for working parents of any gender identity. How can leaders best support the parents on their teams?
Speranza: As a parent myself, I know how difficult this can be. But as hard as it is, it’s worse if you think you’re the only one on your team who struggles with it. So, I’m open with my team about my challenges with work/life integration. In turn, they feel safe to share theirs and we talk about how important it is to do things like take your PTO and get some time with your family, as well as some time to take care of yourself. I take time for those things and my team knows I fully support their need to take time for them too. Our careers are just one part of who we are, and I try to make sure my team knows I understand that all parts of our lives need to be honored if we’re going to succeed in any kind of integrated and sustainable way.
Having it all is one of those things we think everyone else is doing and we’re not. But the secret is that no one has it all, at least not in a sense we imagine they do. There are only so many hours in the day, and there’s only so hard we can push ourselves before we start to suffer for it. And that’s why I think it’s so important to deliberately prioritize. Instead of trying to have it all and inevitably failing, you can go for what really matters to you in each area of your life and be successful at that.
Besides, having it all is a moving target. You’ll always find more to try and stuff into your already overstuffed life. That’s why I think work/life integration with a focus on what’s essential is so important. When you can fit your life together — your whole life, including home and work and self and everything else — on terms that work for you, your family and your employer, everyone wins.
In your opinion, has the definition of “success” at work evolved over the course of your career? If so, how has it changed and how does “success” today compare to “success” of the past?
Speranza: Without question, the definition of success has evolved at work. Today, success is defined much more broadly. Yes, a career is essential. So is family. So are you. It’s all critical and encompasses all aspects of your whole self, and that means your passions, strengths, projects and relationships outside work and family. Real success has it all work together in a way that respects all areas of your life. Success isn’t just about what you achieve and how you perform in your job. Success is defined in all the elements of who we are when we bring ourselves to work.
How can leaders normalize the new definition of success that you just outlined?
Speranza: Leaders can help normalize the new definition of success by modeling it themselves. That means opening yourself up by sharing your personal wins and challenges. I think it’s also essential to seek out and celebrate wins outside the office for people on your team. Look for ways you, as a leader, can support more wins outside the office as well as inside it. You are normalizing this new definition of success by acknowledging, approving and appreciating these wins.
Any final thoughts or important pieces of this conversation that we may have missed?
Speranza: Empathy, which is so often neglected by leaders who view it as a sort of weakness. Really, though, the willingness to show empathy has the opposite effect; it comes from a place of strength and confidence. It’s one of the most desirable characteristics in an employer right now, especially since both home life and work life have changed dramatically since the pandemic. I think being able to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while and see things from their perspective is one of the key pieces of being an effective leader and running a successful company.
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