The Path to Leadership for Women is Not Always a Straight Line

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A junior manager developing a Women’s History Month campaign recently asked me “what inspired you to become a leader?” I had to ponder her question because, for me there was no silver bullet or magic moment. I did not start my career with specific goals or a well-laid plan or even a desire to lead others.  In fact, my career progression into senior leadership was not a clearly defined step-by-step move up the proverbial corporate ladder.  Instead, it looked more like the up, down and across pattern of a lattice.  

As a child, I certainly didn’t dream about an executive leadership role in a large corporation. Let’s face it, in the 1970s—the formative years of my childhood—there simply were not role models or social cues for women in senior leadership positions. I remember the popular board game for girls called “What Shall I Be.” Players had to navigate a path to be a successful "career girl" by becoming a nurse, secretary, teacher, model, dancer or actress. There was no mention of accountant, doctor, engineer or business executive. 

I graduated from college with a degree in education and a plan to get married, have a family and teach high school history. I stumbled on my current career with Sodexo quite accidentally when I picked up a waitressing job to pay for my master’s degree in education. I was promoted to assistant manager, attended management training classes and realized that I could combine my love of this industry (I worked in food service though out high school and college) with my passion for teaching into a fulfilling career. I changed my major to an MBA with a concentration in human resources and continued on my career path with Sodexo. I am so thankful for the many outstanding colleagues, supervisors and mentors who have helped me realize that I could take on more responsibility and succeed as a leader. 

It may surprise you that I am not motivated by climbing the career ladder. Instead, a theme of my career has always been looking for the opportunities to make a difference and add value. Be a leader—no matter what your job or level—don’t wait to become one. When you see something you can positively affect, take the initiative. This will set you apart as a courageous and confident leader. When it’s time to take on a new role, you don’t need to have all the answers but you do need to have the drive, passion and commitment to take on the challenge.  

Always remember that collaboration and working with teams is essential to being a successful leader. Actively learn from your team members and create an environment that supports them in learning from each other. At my level, I have to put the right people in the right roles and then create an environment that facilitates high performance. Creating an environment where people can fully contribute means that in the end we all advance our collective wisdom and skills. Most importantly, shine a light on and celebrate your team members’ successes. 

Finally, make sure you are taking care of yourself and your loved ones. Recognize that it is OK to say no sometimes, both professionally and personally. Say yes to what inspires and motivates you. For me, that is taking time to exercise every day and setting goals like running a half marathon and maybe one day the full 26.2! It also means balancing my family’s needs and being present for them, as well as being a role model, especially for my daughters.  

All those years ago I couldn’t have imagined I’d be where I am today in my career.  Success is not always a straight line—there are ups and downs, twists and turns. Leaders develop through challenges, experiences, setbacks (dare I say mistakes!) and a willingness to grow.  Always remember to focus on your strengths and recognize the value you bring to your organization, team, family and community. Be determined to find ways to improve processes or make a breakthrough change. I hope along the way I’ve inspired and encouraged other women, just as so many others have done and continue to do for me.