All successful leaders inspire, motivate, mentor and direct others toward a higher goal. But let’s be honest, if you’re a woman leader in our male-dominated business world, you’ll have to do more than that.
According to a study by talent-management consulting firm Calpers, successful women leaders possess the universal qualities present in all good leaders — among them, assertiveness, action-mindedness, risk-taking and problem-solving skills. But they also have to marshall other qualities to be successful and overcome the many obstacles, at home and in the office, that have long held many women back.
A growing number of women are reaching the top echelons of business and politics. Today, women lead successful startups like 23andMe, Glossier and Maven, and once again Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. But progress is slow, and the gender gap in leadership remains stubbornly large. A key reason, experts say, is unconscious bias that causes people to react differently to male and female leaders — for instance, among both men and women, male ambition is generally lauded, while female ambition often provokes hostility. Meanwhile, women leaders are expected to be more compassionate, ethical and better at forging compromises than men.
The good news is women do have some important strengths that come with being society’s nurturers. While research shows men more often are top-down, “command-and-control” leaders, women tend to have a more democratic, participative leadership style that experts consider more effective, particularly as collaboration and innovation become more important to competitiveness.
So what are the most important leadership traits women entrepreneurs need to be successful in a male-dominated business world? We asked a group of more than 30 women entrepreneurs from around the world. Here’s what they told us:
1. Honesty and integrity
Integrity — adhering to moral or ethical principles and staying true to your word and commitments — is foundational to effective leadership. That’s because it builds valuable trust with people, from the employees you lead to the partners and investors you bring in to the customers you serve.
“You can only truly succeed if you are true to yourself and your values,” says Jenna Kerner, who is co-founder with Jane Fisher of online bra company Harper Wilde. “You must be clear on your values to be able to make decisions quickly and not worry if you made the wrong choice.”
[Related: Read about Harper Wilde’s startup story.]
People want to follow a leader who’s ethical and acts with integrity, because they can be more confident that they’ll be treated well and fairly, and that their leader will do what’s best for the business. Moreover, ethical behavior, honesty and respect that starts at the top is key to creating a company culture with those same values. So make sure your words, actions and decisions reflect the company you want to build.
Sarah Walsh, the owner of Caffè d’Amore Coffee Co. in Pittsburg, calls integrity the most important quality to success. “Integrity. Doing what you say. Being the same person in private that I am in public,” she says. “We don’t have to be perfect, but I must model integrity.”
Indeed, integrity requires humility and the strength of character to hold yourself accountable, take responsibility for whatever happens, learn from mistakes and strive to improve. And be quick to give praise and credit to others where it is due.
Many of the women entrepreneurs we polled named confidence as the single most important trait needed for success, which is unsurprising since it is also a singular struggle for many women in business.
“Confidence. Hands down. You need to be confident in yourself, confident in your mission, and confident in your worth,” says Alexa Carlin of Women Empower Expo, an annual event for female leaders. “Don’t ever change or alter your femininity to fit in to the ‘boys club.’ You can be just as successful (or even more successful) by being yourself and being confident in who you are.”
Believe in yourself and what you bring to the table, several women advised. Cultivate a “belief that you are good enough,” said Martha Silcott, founder of U.K.-based FabLittleBag, a maker of eco-friendly tampon and pad disposal bags. “Good enough to meet your own targets and goals. Good enough to compete with the status quo. Good enough to be yourself and be successful. Good enough to excel.”
[Read more about Silcott: One Woman’s Mission to Make Menstruation Taboos a Thing of the Past]
Many women over-prepare or feel they have to know everything before they can move into new territory. But with confidence in yourself and your skills and abilities, you’ll be “able to say ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but I will find out,’” Walsh says. And you’ll move forward step by step.
When you know the value of what you have to say and that you’re worthy of being listened to, you’ll have the confidence to speak your mind. And, says Dr. Uma Gautam, founder of HeadPro Consulting LLP, a women-centric executive headhunting firm in Bangalore, you’ll have the “confidence to walk into the executive board room and take the center chair!”
3. Resilience and persistence
Entrepreneurship is tough and full of uncertainty, no matter your gender. Add the heavier domestic and family responsibilities that many women shoulder — not to mention the career momentum slowdown that often comes with childbirth and raising infants — and it only gets tougher. Yet, millions of women push through and succeed in building businesses due to resilience and dogged persistence.
“These extra responsibilities are not justification for setting aside businesswomen under some pretense that they are delicate or distracted,” Kelly Woo of Profectus Financial told Forbes. “Rather, they serve as testaments to the weight we can carry and our ability to act as leaders in all facets of life.”
Be purposeful in achieving the goals you set, and don’t give up without a fight, female entrepreneurs we spoke with advise. That’s the attitude of Dr. Sophia Yen, the CEO and founder of Pandia Health, an online portal that prescribes and delivers low-cost birth control pills. “I won’t stop until this company succeeds and we accomplish our goal of bringing birth control to women who need and want it and making women’s lives easier,” she says.
Success takes both resilience in the face of setbacks and fierce persistence to push ahead. “I’ve been knocked down more times than I can count. That’s come from sexism, from bad luck, and from a number of other factors. But the confidence to move forward in the face of all odds is essential for success,” says Anna Haotanto of The New Savvy, a personal finance and career platform for women in Asia.
“The most important leadership trait, particularly for entrepreneurs, is to not readily accept ‘no,’” says Kirsten Curry, founder of Leading Retirement Solutions, which helps small businesses set up retirement plans. “If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me I wouldn’t succeed, I couldn’t do something in a more creative manner and more, I would be rich!”
[Read Curry’s startup story: Why an Ex-Fisherwoman Cares That Women Business Owners Are Ill-Prepared for Retirement]
4. Strength and courage
Being a female leader in a business world dominated by men requires the strength and boldness to not only deal with naysayers, biases, obstacles and setbacks, but to keep taking risks, learn from failures and fight for what you believe in.
“Hold your ground. Don’t let anyone let you feel inferior,” says Anjali Shah of Mumbai-based Pifa Foundation for the Benefit of Sport, which provides soccer training to underprivileged boys and girls. “Not letting anyone dominate you will ensure that your opinion counts, and you will definitely come out a winner.”
Women often struggle to stand up and ask for what they want and what they need to be successful. Don’t wait for someone to give it to you — whether that’s a mentor’s advice, a higher fee, a business opportunity or an investor’s dollars. Take charge and ask.
[Explore more articles with advice and tips about becoming a leader.]
In a world with constant distractions and endless demands, great leaders know that success requires that they and their enterprise focus on what’s most important to the business. They are able to think strategically, prioritize goals and be responsible for achieving them, including by eliminating non-essential work that takes team members off track.
“I think we need to keep our eyes and ears open, but focus on what we are doing,” says Allison Blust-Zang, owner of Absolute Pilates, a Pennsylvania company with five Pilates studios. “Do what you do well. We do not need to be doing what others are doing.”
Effective leaders are able to keep themselves focused and manage their time, attention and emotions. They play to their strengths, and know and accept their weaknesses, either delegating in areas where they are weak or choosing a different path.
6. Commitment to excellence
When you’re excited about what you’re doing and using your strengths, you’ll go that extra mile to develop and deliver your products and services. And your offerings will stand out for being excellent or innovative, giving you an edge against more complacent competition.
“As a leader, I don’t focus on my gender or if I am a female. To me, my role is to ensure that I do my job well and to produce consistent and quality work, each and every time,” says Haotanto of The New Savvy. “I always believe that we should let our work speak for itself and let its quality demand respect.”
Enthusiasm and passion are contagious, drawing talented people to you and helping you see market gaps and innovate. Just be careful about taking the drive for excellence too far. Many women get trapped in perfectionism that stops them from delegating to others and getting new products to market quickly, which can hurt the business.
7. The ability to listen, learn and adapt
While it’s important to take charge, action ought to be rooted in a solid understanding of your customers, your industry and the marketplace. The best leaders are curious and open to taking in new information.
Vanessa Rende, a Florida-based success coach and public speaker, argues the most important leadership success trait is listening. “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason,” she quips.
Kia Simon of Sneaky Little Sister Films, a San Francisco motion graphics company, agrees. “It’s important to be genuine, and to be engaged and interested. My clients want to be listened to… So if I’m paying attention and delivering what they need, they’re going to keep hiring us.”
Good listening enables us to see changes on the way for the business, which is especially vital in our tech-driven world of high-speed change. Visionary leaders are always trying to spot shifts and new trends, so they can position their companies to adapt and to seize on opportunities that arise from those changes. And they continually update their skills and knowledge, and that of their employees, so they stay competitive and can make the best business decisions.
“Know your stuff. Be educated and be able to clearly articulate what you know. Everyone respects intelligence and confidence,” says Brittany Rose, owner of More Than Cheer, which teaches girls leadership through cheerleading.
Tayo Dada, owner of T.D.T. Logistics Ltd. in Kaduna, Nigeria, which moves the products of women farmers, had to learn a lot about trucks and related risks. Getting familiar with the performance and durability of various vehicles has been vital to “meeting the demands of my clients and coping with the various terrains we ply.” Her success has also required monitoring “the driving habits of our drivers, ensuring that they do not put their or the lives of their passengers at risk.”
8. Communication skills
Powerful leaders know both when to listen and when to talk. And when they talk, they are straightforward, confident and persuasive communicators who are able to inspire others, build strong teams and networks, and motivate people to help achieve the company’s goals.
Communication is one of the most important leadership-success traits, says Rachel O’Neill, founder of the Michigan-based nonprofit Little Dresses for Africa, which includes “knowing when and where to draw a line in the sand without becoming mean or hateful.”
Indeed, successful leadership is literally built on the people around you — you simply aren’t a leader if you don’t have followers. Good leaders trust their ability to develop employees and are willing to empower them to act. They do not hesitate to clarify expectations and nip problems in the bud. And they are able to maintain harmony within teams and with partners and others, knowing that interpersonal dysfunction kills progress toward business goals.
Yes, it’s a buzzword, but empathy is important in fostering trust and loyalty. If you talk regularly with your employees and partners to understand their fears and desires, you’ll be able to put yourself in their shoes and empathize. You will also be able to make sure you’re giving employees what they need to do their jobs well. And when you standing up for them in times of crisis, you’ll increase their desire to perform.
Empathy, resilience and energy — typically considered “feminine” attributes — appear to offer an added benefit for female leaders, according to the Calpers women leaders report. “These personality traits allow them to better understand their subordinates and colleagues, bounce back after failures or rejection, and persevere with their efforts for long periods of time,” its researchers say.
Female bosses are often perceived to be emotional, but Haotanto of The New Savvy asks: “Is that a bad thing? Being in tune with your feelings can mean that you are an empathetic leader. I think society is slowly embracing different kinds of leadership styles.”
Successful women leaders are not overly bothered by pressures to conform to female stereotypes, or to follow the rules in general, according to Calpers. But it’s wise to embrace “female” qualities like empathy and kindness — they will help you read and respond to the needs of your team.
And use your empathy for the challenges women face to create a gender-equal workplace where talented women thrive and become future leaders. Then encourage those women to block out the noise and focus on achieving those higher goals.
[Explore more articles offering advice and tips for women entrepreneurs all along the entrepreneurial journey.]