Sage advice from new book of women mentorsAs we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, entrepreneur and author Deb Boelkes says it’s essential for women to mentor other women as we all strive upward together.
Jacksonville, FL (March 2023)—The 2023 campaign theme for International Women’s Day is #EmbraceEquity. While this hashtag highlights the tremendous strides women have made in and out of the workplace, it also calls attention to the many areas where we’re still striving to gain ground: pay, promotions, political representation, gender bias, the so-called “motherhood penalty,” and sometimes, our own self-image and self-esteem.
As we celebrate and support our sisters on March 8, Deb Boelkes, a former Fortune 500 executive and entrepreneur, has a message she wants all women to hear: We are our own best resource in closing the equity gap.
“Why should the newest generation of emerging leaders enter their careers with little to no tribal knowledge of what it means to struggle, succeed, and lead as a woman?” asks Boelkes, author of the new book Strong Suit: Leadership Success Secrets From Women on Top (Business World Rising, 2023, ISBN: 978-1-7340761-9-6, $49.95, www.businessworldrising.com). “Instead of climbing from the ground up, rising women should be standing on the shoulders of the women who came before them.”
Having worked with and mentored hundreds of female leaders, many of whom were C-level, Boelkes says most are eager to offer a hand to their sisters still climbing the ladder.
“I began my career at a time when the business world was much more male-dominated than it is today, and I surmounted a lot of obstacles on my own,” recalls Boelkes. “I want to pass the lessons I learned on to rising female leaders so they can spend their time and energy learning new lessons and breaking new barriers. After all, that’s what equity is all about: helping others access opportunities so that equality can eventually be achieved.”
Boelkes wrote Strong Suit to serve as the “voice of a mentor” for women in all fields and at all levels. Besides sharing her own wisdom, Boelkes extensively interviewed seven women who made it to the top of the corporate world, the government, the military, and beyond. You’ll read about their lives and careers in their own words—as well as their insights on topics ranging from identifying and capitalizing on one’s strengths, leading through challenging times, forming relationships at the top, learning from mistakes, and balancing career with family.
Strong Suit is the fourth book in a series packed with real-world lessons from successful leaders. Even more than its predecessors, Strong Suit is a comprehensive treasure trove of no-holds-barred advice. Yes, it’s a bit of an investment, but it’s the kind of book that will serve as a lifelong resource. Not only will it decrease your learning curve as you navigate your career, it’s a book you’ll return to again and again as you achieve new things and face new challenges.
Here, Boelkes—with help from a few of the “women on top” she has interviewed—shares eight insights from Strong Suit that will help rising women #EmbraceEquity:
Your past helps mold who you are—but it doesn’t have to define what you can accomplish
We all learn lessons and pick up traits—both positive and negative—from our parents and other formative figures. Their expectations and opinions of us help shape our trajectories. Most of us were probably told, “You can do anything you set your mind to,” but we may have also absorbed negative lessons (either explicit or implied) about women’s roles and our own capabilities.
“Ultimately, your background does not determine whether you can make it to the top,” stresses Boelkes. “This is something a lot of us know in theory, but have trouble internalizing. We carry limiting—and inaccurate—assumptions about what we have to offer and what our place in the world should be. Try to identify these beliefs and use them as a springboard for positive action.”
Even in this day and age (like it or not!) appearance matters
Boelkes acknowledges that this advice goes against some schools of popular thought, but she insists it’s a truth that today’s rising leaders still need to live by. Every day is a dress rehearsal for the C-suite (or whatever goal you are working toward), and your appearance impacts how others perceive you.
“The women I interviewed were pleased that expectations regarding appearance are not as stringent, and perhaps unfair, as they used to be,” says Boelkes. “But they all agreed that presence does matter, even in fields where individuality, creativity, and informality are the norm. Here’s my advice: Don’t think of it as dressing to ‘please’ others. You aren’t. All of us—men and women—should use our appearance as a tool to positively influence how others respond to us.”
Stop being sorry for asking questions and sharing your opinion
Boelkes says many women tend to minimize themselves, usually unconsciously. They’ll say things like, “Sorry, but I have a question,” or, “I could be wrong, but….” Sometimes they’d rather not say anything than share an opinion that hasn’t been thoroughly thought-out and researched. (This happens less often with men!) Boelkes urges all women to remember: You got to where you are because you are smart, qualified, and capable. Others saw those things in you then, so continue to showcase them now.
Linda Rutherford, executive vice president and chief communications officer of Southwest Airlines, recalls that after being promoted to VP, she initially struggled to speak up in the boardroom. “If I had a thought before, sometimes I would whisper it to the person next to me. But then the room did not benefit from that thought or that perspective. I have learned that my value is to share that thought or that perspective with everyone in the room.”
“Executive” and “emotionless” aren’t synonyms
As the leader of a peer mentoring program for C-level women, Boelkes has met many women who think that once they reach “the top,” they need to be calm, collected, stoic, unemotional, and mentally tough at all times. These female execs hide or shut down any expression of empathy, anxiety, indecision, or even joy. They hold other people at arm’s length to avoid dealing with emotional upheaval.
“No wonder we think it’s lonely at the top!” exclaims Boelkes. “For many years, female leaders did have to tamp down so-called expressions of femininity as they fought to ascend the male-dominated ranks. That’s why, as we continue to work toward equity, it’s so important to have friendships with other female leaders. Build an inner circle where you can be candid and can count on support and authentic advice. Continue to maintain warm and supportive relationships with board members, industry peers, direct reports, and high-potentials downline.”
Leadership is not about your skills. It’s about your people
Some leaders, especially new ones, are stuck in the mindset that their success hinges on the technical skills they were judged on prior to their promotion. But leadership isn’t about how well you can do something; it’s about how well you can develop, engage, and motivate your team so that they can do that task. Boelkes says your first priority as a leader is assembling and empowering a great team, followed by removing any obstacles that stand in the way of their success. When you enable everyone to perform at their individual best, you’ll all cross the finish line together.
Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Kathleen M. Gainey agrees. “What I quickly learned is, people are your most important resource. If you invest in people, they will take care of you. When you make a mistake, they will correct it…If you have created an environment where they can share information with you and not…be yelled at, or screamed at, they will share things with you that you need to know.”
Assessments exist for a reason. Use them
It can be surprisingly challenging to answer the question, “What are your strong suits?” Boelkes warns that a true strong suit isn’t just something you’re good at; it should also bring you joy and tie into your purpose. To help you zero in on these sometimes-elusive strengths, how they manifest in your life, and how to best leverage them, she recommends assessments like CliftonStrengths and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
“Knowing what makes you stand out can give you a big leg up and help you become the best version of yourself,” she says. “Focusing on what you are really great at and love doing will elevate your performance and enhance your authenticity. You’ll be comfortable with yourself as well as your evolving roles and responsibilities, rather than feeling like an imposter or a square peg in a round hole as you climb the ladder.”
If you choose to improve in one area, make it soft skills
Communication and relationship-management skills are what build a great culture (and Boelkes is adamant that a great culture is what leads to great metrics, not the other way around). Yet—despite the fact that this generation of workers has made it clear how much they value good relationships with their leaders—there is a noted “soft-skill gap” in many business education programs. That’s why Boelkes recommends identifying role models and adopting their behaviors, attitudes, and methods.
“There is a big gap between understanding organizational theory and becoming an inspirational leader,” Boelkes notes. “The only way to fill it is through observing and, more importantly, doing. Start by treating people the way you would want to be treated and consciously inspiring them to be their best. You’ll instinctively feel which tactics work and can build from there. The good news is, so-called soft skills like communication, empathy, emotional intelligence, and flexibility tend to be innate for many women—so lean into your feminine strengths!”
You may be able to “have it all”—if you have help
The concept of “having it all”—and whether that’s even possible—has sparked fierce debate. Based on her own experience and the feedback she’s received from fellow executive mothers, Boelkes believes that women can enjoy a fulfilling career and a strong family life—but success in this endeavor has to be a team effort.
“Just like building a successful executive career, raising children demands large amounts of time, energy, and emotional investment,” she says. “Sharing the load with others who are also invested in your child’s future should not be seen as a weakness or failure, but as a prudent decision to enhance everyone’s well-being. You’ll need a supportive partner, a trusted network of family and friends, or reliable outside childcare—often all three!”
“When it comes to embracing equity, leveraging your strong suits and helping others do the same is akin to ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’” concludes Boelkes. “I have seen firsthand how powerful it is when successful women advise, develop, and support their sisters. I hope you’ll let the campaign theme for this year’s International Women’s Day motivate you to seek out female role models…and perhaps become a mentor yourself.”
About the Author
Deb Boelkes is the author of Strong Suit: Leadership Success Secrets From Women on Top. Deb is not just a role model and heartfelt leader; she’s the ultimate authority on accelerating the advancement of aspiring leaders to the top of best places to work. She has 25+ years in Fortune 150 high-tech firms, leading superstar business development and professional services teams. As an entrepreneur, she has accelerated advancement for women eager to achieve success. Deb has delighted and inspired over 1,000 audiences across North America.
About the Book
Strong Suit: Leadership Success Secrets From Women on Top (Business World Rising, 2023, ISBN: 978-1-7340761-9-6, $49.95, www.businessworldrising.com) is available for pre-order from major online booksellers.
For more information, please visit www.businessworldrising.com.