10 important lessons from being a woman in leadership anyone can learn from

Over the last couple of years we have experienced a global pandemic, witnessed movements toward equality and racial justice, many companies have pushed the envelope with their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and focus has been placed on growing representation of women in leadership. Women leaders are proving there is nothing stopping them from rising to new heights. According to the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey “The pandemic continues to take a toll. Despite this added stress and exhaustion, women are rising to the moment as stronger leaders and taking on the extra work that comes with this: compared with men at the same level, women are doing more to support their teams and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.”

While every leader’s style is unique, women are more likely to display higher self-awareness, emotional intelligence, humility and authenticity. Gallup reported that gender diverse organizations performed better financially than those dominated by one gender. Different perspectives, knowledge and insights allow organizations to solve problems more effectively.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I want to share 10 important lessons I learned on my journey to become the leader and the person I am today.

Lesson 1: The power of human connection, presence and listening

I am originally from Slovakia and I came to Ireland over 17 years ago with one goal; to learn English. However, with little English at my time of arrival, finding and securing a job proved difficult. Luckily, through a little bit of networking, I acquired a job as a cleaner in a care centre. At first, I did not expect to enjoy the role as much as I did. Though it wasn’t the cleaning of the bedrooms and the bathrooms that set my heart aflame; it was the people I worked with, and the residents of the care centre. Day after day I saw lonely residents patiently waiting for their families and friends to visit them, while some had no visitors at all. As a result, they spent their days chatting with me, and these conversations brightened up my day as much as theirs. They cared little for my lack of English, they were just glad of a friendly face, a wide smile and someone who genuinely wanted to listen. It showed me the power of human connection, presence, and listening – strong leadership foundation.

After working a couple of call centre jobs, I eventually accepted the role of a Customer Support Agent in a start-up business. This is where my career really took off. But it wasn’t easy and I didn’t do it alone. I still remember my first few months in this new role. I was shy, afraid to speak up, I didn’t believe that I could succeed in an environment that was at that time male dominated. But then… I met the most amazing person, someone who became my direct manager, mentor and role model. Kieran thought me plenty of valuable lessons, lessons that I think everyone, in every level of leadership should add to their professional toolbox. At the end of the day it was this man, who inspired me to be the empowered female leader I am today.

Lesson 2: It is not about having answers, but asking the right questions

Within the first year of my career, I was tasked to lead a pretty intimidating project. I had no idea where to start and I felt completely overwhelmed. I learned, it is not about having all the answers, it is about asking the right questions. Kieran supported and guided me and shared some of his experiences with me and how one of his most valuable assets was his team. So, I learned that asking the right questions, collaborating with your team members, asking for their input and opinions is how you can get something that seems impossible to you accomplished.

Lesson 3: Nothing is more important than your family

Couple of years later, my husband and I were blessed with a baby boy and I went on maternity leave. Once I came back, I was responsible not only for my job and my team, but also for a tiny human being. While I love being a mom, I needed to allow myself a sense of identity outside of motherhood. My work always gave me a sense of fulfillment and I wanted to protect its place in my life. I wanted to show my son that women can be great mothers and have a successful and fulfilling career. While balancing it can be sometimes demanding, it is not impossible. Upon my return the work schedule was demanding and my drive and ambition to succeed was higher than ever. And then I got a call from my son’s kindergarten that he wasn’t well. As I approached Kieran, I was worried what his reaction will be. I just returned from maternity leave and here I was asking for more time off. His response was: “You are important. Your family is important.” I felt seen, heard, valued, empowered and inspired.

Lesson 4: Everyone’s voice matters.

Especially those voices that disagree with you. Working with Kieran was always a learning opportunity and we always got along so well. But don’t be mistaken, this doesn’t mean that we always agreed on everything. Often we had different ideas and wanted to take different approaches. He gave me the space to voice my opinions, ask questions and share my ideas. Many times he acknowledged that my approach was much better than the one he initially thought of. Speaking as someone who used to think that my way is the right way, this changed me and how I interacted with my team members. And the end results have always been much better than my initial vision.

Lesson 5: You will make mistakes

I made many mistakes along the way. Kieran knew that making mistakes was part of life – source of learning and not regrets. He appreciated when I was able to recognize them, admit them, apologize for them and together we would then come up with a plausible solution to amend them. All he ever asked for, was for me to do the best I can and be the best possible version of myself I can be.

Lesson 6: There is always another option

We often face challenges and many times it looks like we can only chooce between bad and worse. Nevertheless, remember, there is always another way. So stop and think what that other option might be and you would be surprised what great solutions you will be able to come up with. Find someone who you can talk to, brainstorm ideas and look at your challenges from different perspectives. Open your mind to other possibilities.

Lesson 7: You are not too emotional

People sometimes wrongly assume that women need to be tough and underestimate the power and value of emotions. Something that shouldn’t be ignored or hidden.

I can admit that, as a passionate leader, I experienced plenty of emotions and shed some tears. Difficult decisions had to be made, things didn’t always work out the way I wanted. Initially I was ashamed of my emotions. Kieran was there for me on many of these occasions. He just sat there, and held the space for me. He didn’t ask me to stop, or made me feel bad about those emotions. He let me process them.

I wasn’t emotional because I am a woman or because I wasn’t able to perform under pressure. I have kept my cool under “extreme” situations and handled plenty of “emergencies”. I was emotional because I am human. Showing emotions is not sign of weakness, it is sign of strength. My emotions and expressions of my feelings, made it okay for others to express theirs. All emotions are okay. The important part is how we process them and how we react to them.

Lesson 8: Never stop learning

Sherlock Holmes once said, “My mind rebels at stagnation; give me problems; give me work.” Throughout my career I have been leading different teams and different projects and pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. As soon as I started to get comfortable, I felt that itch to start working on something new, something that will challenge me and push me. Kieran used to say to me: “As soon as you stop learning, it is time for you to move on.” He believed in me, trusted me and in return I trusted him with my career. He moved me between departments, assigned me different projects. I built a strong network of people, celebrated many accomplishments and cherished all the lessons learned. Learning is oxygen; stop it, and progress is choked. I never stopped learning, learning about the business, about the people, and about myself.

Lesson 9: You can have a male mentor

There is nothing that says women must have female mentors in the workplace. There are plenty of women who have found success in having male mentors. And I am one of them. The personality match, shared values, respect, trust and their genuine interest in helping you grow, is more important than gender.

Lesson 10: Life is like a box of chocolates

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are gonna get.” One of my favorite quotes from the movie Forest Gump. Chocolates refer to the choices we make in life, which eventually shape our future. And it is indeed a challenge to get that perfect bite all the time. We are in the driver’s seat, how fast or slow we go depends on us, but we don’t stop. And when we reach our goals and look at the difficulties we had, we will realize that it was just a process we had to go through to make it worth it. I left the corporate world and here I am sitting now, writing this article. Is the grass greener? I can’t say that. But what I can say' there is a life outside the corporate world and life will go on. Kieran is still the person I look up too, my mentor, my friend, supporter, advocate and my friend. We all need to choose what is right for us and we cannot forget about all the strong connections and relationships we have built. I learned so much from every conversation, every interaction I had and I can’t wait to meet many more amazing people as my journey continues.

International Women’s Day is an international day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This day is also one for action from all genders in accelerating gender equality.

We all have a voice. Let’s use it! Let’s ensure our voices are heard!

I challenge you, regardless of the gender you identify with or the position you hold, to commit to one action today. Gender equality is not a women’s issue, it is a human one and it impacts all of us! We all need to remember that we are in this together.

Happy International Women’s Day!