Multicultural women represent only about 1.6 percent of corporate officers and top earners at the nation’s 500 leading industrial companies, according to Catalyst, a top women-oriented research and advisory firm. Although these leaders reached the top in a variety of ways, they do share one trait: they know that to become an effective leader, you must know yourself and how to play to your strengths and manage your weaknesses.
In more than 40 years of research on leadership, the Gallup Organization has found that what distinguishes the best leaders is their ability to focus on what they do well. “Good leaders really know where they can shine and excel, and so they position themselves to do whatever that is more often,” explains Jacqueline Merritt, senior leadership consultant at Gallup.
“It’s not realistic for me to be the subject matter expert in all areas,” says Bobbie Gregg, vice president and global chief compliance officer for Aon Corporation. Gregg’s strategy is to build her team so that the strengths and weaknesses of team members are well-balanced.
“Leaning on others who can provide additional expertise is one way to augment those areas where you may not have great strengths,” says Patricia Lewis Burton, vice president of human resources at IBM, who also works to identify employees’ strengths and talents and develop them.
Developing leadership skills is an ongoing, often complicated process. Here are three key skill areas to focus on.
In Heather Herndon Wright’s office at the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) in Dallas, Texas, when staff members face conflict, they call it a “stinky fish.”
“When the stinky fish is on the table, it’s time to sit down and talk about it,” says the senior director of affiliate relations at WBENC. “Deal with it head-on as early as possible. Conflict is like a festering wound. The longer it is there, the worse it festers.”
Managing conflict head-on is one characteristic of a good leader, says Eric Herzog, a national expert on leadership development and author of the book Future Leaders. “No one approach to managing conflict will work. You need a variety of approaches.”
Drawing on 30 years of experience in leadership and human resource development, Herzog’s Los Angeles–based company, Quest Consulting, teaches hundreds of executives what it takes to be a great leader.
One aspect of managing conflict is being able to admit mistakes, Herzog says. “People try to cover over mistakes, but usually it doesn’t work very well. Great leaders realize we’re not perfect and that we make mistakes. We must admit them, and figure out how to respond and fix them.”
Another key component of great leadership, says Herzog, is knowing yourself and your audience, and being able to tailor messages accordingly. Good communication is critical, he says.
Aon Corporation’s Gregg says she spends a lot of her time thinking about how to communicate effectively to the company’s 45,000 employees at 120 offices worldwide. “You have to consider what the messages are, how they arebeing received by the employees, what feedback they are giving us, and how we need to modify the message to make it more effective.”
Wright calls it ‘transmitting at the right frequency.’ “Communication is the lifeblood of being a leader. You have to recognize the different ways that people communicate, and your responsibility is to try multiple frequencies so that the message is received,” she says.
Communicating effectively can be subtle. A leader needs to be able to read verbal and nonverbal cues and use a communication style that translates well for every audience. For example, Cheryl Pearson-McNeil, senior vice president of communications and community affairs at the Nielsen Company, an African American, adjusts her voice if necessary, especially in contentious situations. “It’s important to speak up and make sure you’re being understood,” she said. “If you’re a woman of color—or a women period—you might need to soften your voice and tone. Try to keep the emotion out of it. Deliver the message firmly but softly. You don’t want the message to get misconstrued or give any perception that you’re an angry black woman.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but great leaders need great mentors. For multicultural women, however, finding a mentor can be a challenge. According to Catalyst, having women, particularly other African American women, in their networks was positively tied to top promotion rates for African American women. Yet, lack of access to networks of influential colleagues underlies all major barriers to advancement identified by women of color, the Catalyst study said.
“Having a good mentor is important to help you learn how to respond to a challenge,” says Herzog, who encourages women to find mentors either inside or outside the organization.
Pamela Bush-Davis, founder and CEO of Advantage Claims Recovery Group Inc., a nationally recognized medical claims recovery group, says that finding mentors along the way has been difficult. “In lieu of that, I’ve done research, read books, and studied some of the great leaders to keep me motivated,” she says.
IBM’s Burton says, “Having role models that look like you is an inspiration. You can have an open dialogue or a safe place to go.” Burton has found some mentors within IBM, which has made a strong commitment to developing diversity, including promoting mentorships.
“Leadership is about relationships with people, whether mentoring others or building one’s constituency,” Merritt explains. “A leader’s responsibility is to create that culture where relationships can happen, where people feel connected enough to one another that they want to move in the direction that the leader sets.”
The more multicultural women who develop these skills—conflict resolution, effective communication, and mentorship opportunities—the greater the opportunities there will be for women of color in the boardroom. DW
Catherine Crawley, Ph.D, is the founder of Crawley Communications & Research, which provides editorial content and research services to individuals and corporations. Visit her website at www.crawleycommunications.com