Seven Strategies for Women Business Leaders

Helping women ramp up their businesses, not only to add jobs, but to increase profitability and financial independence, is one challenge I’m looking forward to discussing at The Wall Street Journal Women in the Economy Task Force, on April 30—May 2.

Improving the competitiveness of the American workforce is the overarching goal: “To that end, the Task Force will address ways to drive change beyond the organization focusing on leadership and innovation in sessions that identify opportunities for action in influential areas from education and entrepreneurship to science/technology/math and politics.”

In every industry, driving change for women really depends on greater female leadership. Whether it’s running companies, attaining board positions, demonstrating profit and loss expertise, writing influential op-eds, or retooling talent management, we need more leaders. What can high-achieving women do to advance? Here are a few practical steps that have helped me.

  1. Surround yourself with smart, motivated people from different industries. One of the most valuable perks of owning a PR/marketing firm is that I have an insider’s view of many successful businesses. I work closely with CEOs and their management teams. These professionals are smart and self-motivated. You don’t reach the top rung of leadership by waiting for the door to open or hesitating to introduce new ideas. For women, it’s critical to seek out conversations and relationships with CEOs you admire—men and women. You will discover commonalities among leaders, and you’ll find that they are genuinely happy to help you reach your advancement goals. But the onus is on you to make the ask.
  2. Build your own sandbox. If you find your business path repeatedly blocked or your career advancement stunted, start building your own sandbox. Disrupt yourself. After 15 years as a stay-at-home mom, I realized that corporate America would pay an executive wage for the skills of a strong business communicator. My path to entrepreneurship began as an on-ramper, someone who had stepped off the fast track to raise children and was now ramping back on. To remain competitive, I learned new services, stayed nimble, and built strong client relationships. Offering traditional PR/marketing services with the added horsepower of social media is a game changer for clients and a blue ocean for me.
  3. 3.       Communicate clearly. Communication skills are critical to leadership and can’t be underestimated. Women are strong communicators and can leverage this skill in any business setting. When asked how important communication was to Ford’s turnaround success, Ford CEO Alan Mulally said, “Communications… most important…compelling vision…comprehensive strategy and plan…relentless implementation…all stakeholders in…everyone knows the plan…the status…and areas needing special attention…all are appreciated every day” [emphasis  mine]. To make sure everyone’s on the same boat rowing in the same direction, there has to be an expert communicator with a clear vision—be her.
  4. Find your voice. To be a recognized leader, you need opinions and ideas. You also need to be assertive enough to add your voice to the world conversation. Letters to the Editor are a great place to start, and so is commenting on blogs, but an 800-word opinion editorial can be a launch pad for leadership. The Op Ed Project’s mission is to increase the number of women as thought leaders on opinion editorial pages. On its website, there is a weekly tally of op-eds in the national media that are written by men and women. We women have a lot of room to improve.
  5. Lead locally. Not all women will become Fortune 500 CEOs, but women who aspire to lead can affect significant change first in their communities. The power of The Wall Street Journal Women in the Economy Task Force is that 200 women executives will be educated with fresh McKinsey insights, first-person business stories, data-driven direction, and clear objectives to return to their parts of the world and begin a new level of leadership. This may be through an executive committee, a leadership cell, sponsorships, or STEM talks to high school girls. It can be through service on The Salvation Army advisory board, leading an event for the chamber of commerce, or creating a blog about opportunities for women in business. The first fruits of your labor will be seen in your own neighborhoods. Then you can build on these successes by making larger impacts on economic development boards, political committees, or as a speaker and author.
  6. Influence others to act. Are others compelled to follow you? From think to build, will others support your ideas and vision and help you reach a goal? Perhaps equally important, are you influential online? An exciting opportunity at the WSJ WIE event is to create and disseminate business-changing content in real time. In each session, we can immediately share the insights, videos, tool kit, and tactics via social media. As Mark W. Schaefer writes in his new book, Return on Influence, “the role of social media and the influence it enables as a rapid catalyst for change, service, and continuous improvement” is unprecedented. That’s good news for women wanting to lead.
  7. Educate yourself on P&L and how to read balance sheets. Advancing into business leadership or onto an executive committee will require a strong knowledge of financials. In fact, that was one area from the 2011 Wall Street Journal Task Force that was highlighted for improvement: “Women need profit-and-loss experience.” For female business owners, this should rank high on the skills-to-have list. This skill, coupled with online and offline influence, communication, and local leadership, brings female firepower to the table.

According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, if U.S.-based women-owned businesses were their own country, they would have the fifth largest GDP in the world. That’s some strong female talent to build on.

Anne D. Gallaher