Cheri Beranek, President and CEO of Clearfield, shares her tips to encourage young women to make it to the top.
Women have come a long way since the right to vote in 1920. Many women, myself included, have risen into positions of authority and leadership — in government, entertainment, and business — that would have been unheard of just over a hundred years ago. While women make up only about 8% of the Fortune 500 CEOs in 2021, that percentage is up from zero in 1995.
Of course, barriers still exist that make climbing up the corporate ladder challenging. But my experience and that of women who have risen to positions of leadership show, with increasing frequency, that a woman can aim for the top and get there. Here’s how:
Build A Plan
Set your sights on what you want and go for it, but take the time to figure out how you’ll get there. Be bold with your goals and set deadlines to meet them. I didn’t have any kind of plan when I got fired from my first professional job, but I quickly learned how big a mistake that could be. So, I made a plan for the future of my career: Become a director by the time I was 30, Vice President by 40, and President at 50.
I knew I needed confidence and conviction to get there. I had great mentors and people that recognised my drive, and I ended up hitting my goals a little earlier than I planned. The day I came back to work from maternity leave, I became a vice president. I was 36. Three years later, I became the Chief Operating Officer of a sister firm, and then at age 40, I was named President. When I look back and see that I’ve been leading organisations for nearly 20 years, I still feel motivated to do more – but I’m so grateful that I laid out a plan early.
Having a plan also helps you recognise when something doesn’t fit into it so you can feel more confident saying “no.” When I started out, I took on anything that was thrown at me and imagined I could handle it — even when I didn’t want to say yes because I was already overwhelmed. My work suffered as a result. Setting deadlines is important, but managing them, saying no when they don’t work, and asking for help when you’re struggling to meet them is a whole different skill set to learn.
True confidence in yourself can take time to grow, but projecting confidence can be equally as effective. If you have a plan and know your goals, work toward them full force assuming you’ll get there. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes along the way. Own them, then learn from them, dust yourself off, and keep going.
Another way to project confidence is straightforward and transparent communication. Ask for help when you need it, but make sure you look to other confident people with this communication style to provide it and learn from them. I’ve worked in both male- and female-dominant environments, and I’ve found that men are more automatically inclined to this kind of straightforward confidence, but successful women know how to exude it.
Appreciate today, but prepare for tomorrow
You only have this moment. Take full advantage of it so you can always handle what may come. Ask a lot of questions, not to prove a point or debate what others are saying but to make sure you understand exactly what they want to express without assumptions. Asking questions isn’t always about knowing everything — sometimes, through asking, we discover what we still need to learn.
Skill and knowledge come with patience and hard work, and as the saying goes, “good things come to those who wait.” Put a marshmallow in front of a kid and they’ll gobble it up, but according to research, being able to wait 15 minutes without eating that marshmallow and earning a second as a reward was a predictive factor of greater future success in children. Delayed gratification required the children to avoid temptation for the sake of a goal, a behaviour that anyone in business would do well to embrace.
More women as leaders will bring greater balance to decision-making and more inclusive outcomes. Research suggests that women in corporate leadership can improve firm performance and that girls seeing women leaders encourages more of them to aspire to achieve the same. Getting more women in leadership means we need more women with the drive to get there. There will be ups and downs, but ride the ride, because those highs and lows are what makes the roller coaster of this journey so much fun.