Parents, teachers, and mentors can help better prepare young girls--mentally and technically--for leadership roles and to become leaders.

When I grow up: Nurturing girls to become leaders

Parents, teachers, and mentors can help better prepare young girls--mentally and technically--for leadership roles

Growing up, I was the class vice-president; the de facto leader of every group project ever assigned; elementary and high school valedictorian; and the captain of my sports teams. I met all the stereotypes of a typical, Type A student. Yet, it never crossed my mind that when I grew up, I could be a CEO.

I’m not alone. 

According to Harvard Business Review 5.3 percent of large U.S. companies have CEOs named John compared with 4.1 percent that have CEOs who are women. Firms with CEOs named David, at 4.5 percent, also outnumber women-led businesses. More than half of college graduates are women, yet, less than 8 percent of the fortune 500 CEOs are women. The stats speak for themselves. 

Was I a victim of these statistics? Not necessarily. Upon reflection, it’s probably because I was extremely shy and struggled with interpersonal communications. While I may have checked the technical skill boxes, I fell short on the ‘soft’ skills. Skills, say the lady leaders you’re about to hear from, that are critical to leadership success. But as I learned from my peers, leaders are likely not born leaders, they grow into the role. Which means every one of us as parents, teachers, and mentors can help better prepare young girls, both mentally and technically, for leadership roles.

Tricia Han, the CEO of MyFitnessPal, attributes her foray into leadership to a conversation with a friend, who also happened to be a talent recruiter–a woman, and person of color– who encouraged her to apply for a leadership role. Tricia hesitated citing lack of experience, until the friend said, “People like me need to see people like you in those leadership roles so we know it’s possible.” 

Tricia remembers thinking, “It’s sometimes easier to be brave when you realize you’re doing it for others.”

Tricia doesn’t know if she would have raised her hand for leadership had she not had that impetus.  Born in the United States to immigrant parents, Tricia knew the expectation was for her to be a doctor or a lawyer. She was organized, a strong communicator, and creative. Her parents remained open-minded when she majored in English Literature. Tricia says, “One of the great things about college is that the curriculum allowed me to explore a lot of different areas. While I ended up spending my career in technology product management, English Literature ended up being a great training ground because you’re trying to understand motivation, personalities, and you need to be able to communicate a story as a CEO. Those are absolutely critical skills.”

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While technical expertise is important, Tricia believes those soft skills she learned in school made her more a more capable leader. “

There’s no way a teacher could have prepared me for the technical aspects of my career path, because my job didn’t exist,” explained Tricia.

Tricia adds, “Leadership is a learned skill, just like anything else. I hope girls realize that. Girls are tough on themselves. They think it must be perfect out of the gate. As teachers and parents, we can reinforce that it takes practice. Tomorrow’s another day and all will be fine.”

Fumiko Taki grew up in a remote area of Japan and now works in the global finance industry, assisting clients in areas such as Initial Public Offerings (IPO), Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPAC) and Merger and Acquisitions (M&A) transactions at Deloitte & Touche LLP. “As a child, I did not aspire to be a leader,” she shared.  “All I wanted was to get out of my small town in western Japan to see the world. In elementary school, I was motivated to get good grades and go to a good school so I could work for a big corporation. I assumed that once I married, I would leave my career, since that was the social norm in Japan at that time.”

Fumiko says her high school physics teacher inspired the technical skills she uses in her job today. “He inspired me to study physics in college. While physics has nothing to do with my career now, I believe it helps me logically approach and resolve complex issues. In such situations, I always tell myself at least it’s not quantum physics!”

After college, Fumiko worked for a software company in Japan. It was a well-known family-owned company, and she says they treated her very well, but she noticed there were quite a few constraints in her career growth. For example, when she requested relocation to the Tokyo office, her employer at the time told her they could not advance this request because she’s a woman.

Eventually, Fumiko realized her dream of working in the U.S. and learned she could overcome any challenge with resilience and persistence. In the U.S., she found male and female role models in leadership. She says it’s the soft skills she’s observed throughout her career that define a good leader, skills educators can instill in students at a young age, “My personal belief is that ‘leader’ is not a title, but how people are perceived. When I think of a leader, personal characteristics are the foundation, and self-awareness is a tool. I’ve met amazing leaders in both my personal and professional life, and most share the following characteristics: drive, intelligence, confidence, and genuine kindness. And even though these traits might not come naturally to everyone, I believe that with self-awareness and a curious and observant mind, those traits can be learned and embodied in a way that is authentic to each person.”

Rebecca Sanford wears two hats. She is the founder of Fe League, an organization invested in supporting female leaders, and she also serves as a Senior Operating Advisor at Francisco Partners, with a focus on Human Resources. Rebecca says she was a natural leader as a child. While she didn’t have specific aspirations to be CEO or President, she always wanted to lead people.

Yet, she recalls a time in sixth grade where conditioning and cognitive bias impacted her journey to be a leader. “I was a ‘straight A’ kid until sixth grade. Another student and I both had As and had to audition to speak at the elementary school graduation. I nailed it. But the teachers chose him because they said his voice projected better. There’s nothing I could have done. I realized I had to play the cards I was dealt. I got much more involved in social activities, sports, and different groups.  I decided to pave my own path to leadership which carried all the way through college.”

Today, Rebecca interviews and hires CEO candidates and her voice projects better. She echoes Tricia’s and Fumiko’s comments that the soft skills many females exhibit can go a long way in leadership and those skills can be reinforced early in life, in the classroom. Leaders need to be vulnerable. They need to listen more than they talk. They need to recognize that the loudest person in the room isn’t always the smartest.

Girls and women have the intelligence problem-solving skills to be leaders. Plus, they possess those soft skills. As Rebecca says, “Teachers can model leadership. Teachers can instill confidence. Teachers can influence young men to have a woman as a mentor.”

Leadership is about challenging ourselves to think differently, to evolve professionally, and to make a commitment to learning that begins in the classroom and continues throughout our daily lives. 

Tricia says, “Teachers are the lifeblood. They’ve been so important to me. I still remember every teacher’s name I had and what I loved about them. They acted as mentors and they taught me so many things, not just academically, but socially and ethically.”

Rebecca encourages teachers to become aware of our cognitive biases. “Right or wrong, we’re all existing in a world with systemic issues,” she said. If you don’t address it, you’re condoning it. Teachers are on the front lines of the development of future leaders. Boys raise their hand more. Teachers can take a proactive stance in giving girls a voice.”

“I started at Deloitte & Touche LLP four years ago,” says Fumiko, “And since then I have participated in several incredible workshops that helped me understand how to leverage self-awareness to create my own brand and leave a positive impression on others. In one training, I learned how to project confidence, manage perceptions, and communicate effectively both verbally and through non-verbal cues, including how our facial expressions and body language can make a big difference. In fact, Albert Mehrabian, a body language researcher, found that 55 percent of communication is body language, 38 percent is tone of voice and only 7 percent is verbal language. Known as the 7-38-55 Rule, he wrote about the concept in his book Silent Messages (1971) and it still rings true to this day. I think it’s important for educators to share these insights (and so much more!) to prepare girls to be better leaders.”

Will we see a day where there are more Janes than Johns in the C-Suite? My hope is that male or female, every company puts the most capable human at the helm. But there’s no better time than the present to ensure the girls in our world believe they can lead. And it starts with each of us. Rebecca says, “I created an organization of women who are aspiring to be in a position of leadership. Seeing organizations like Fe League take off, it’s all very hopeful. Women supporting women is gaining momentum. It’s more now than I’ve seen before in my career. Twenty years ago, there was a more of a competitive, scarcity mindset. I don’t see that at all now. Women say, ‘Let me save you a seat.’” 

As for that overachieving, yet cripplingly shy 12-year-old me? While I may not have envisioned I would ever have those three letters in my future, I’ve heard from teachers and other adults in my life who knew me back then that they always knew I had it in me. And I eventually found my voice.   

Teachers, who is the next Tricia, Fumiko, Rebecca, or me sitting in your class? Save her a seat..

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Britten Follett
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