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I never planned for a professional career path. I disliked high school, and I struggled with traditional academia.
Luckily, my mother recognized my keen eye for art and design and realized that my poor academic performance was simply misguided. Disregarding tradition, and in a move considered extremely progressive in our native Pakistan, she placed me in the country’s top coed art school — and from there, the spark was lit. I graduated with honors and already had a flourishing business in my final year of college.
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Today, as the head of product design for a global technology company, I’ve seen — and experienced — the challenges that women face when advancing their careers in technology, especially when it comes to establishing their reputations as leaders. Women make up a small percentage of the technology workforce, earning just 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in computer science. For the percentage that do break into the field, a tougher challenge remains: staying there. Consider the following:
The long-term effects of these turnover rates can be discouraging. But, I believe that for all women, understanding and personifying five key skills and behaviors can help us establish an executive presence — one that commands respect among our peers, helps us manage up and keeps us motivated to continue the climb. Over the years, employing practices such as working smarter, exuding confidence, showing empathy, mastering strengths and following my gut helped me establish myself as a leader in my area, and I’ve been fortunate to watch several of my female mentors use these traits to succeed at companies like Oracle, Intuit and eBay.
After defying the odds myself, here are my favorite techniques to help give women in tech an advantage:
Know your strengths and master them.
With my mother’s support, I channeled my artistic energy and played into my strengths, earning a graduate degree in web design and becoming an expert in what I love most. I got my design start early; from age 7, I would arrange furniture in the house, design clothes for my dolls and give fashion advice to my mom.
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If you haven’t already, find out what you love doing most and master that skill; turn your passion into a career and it won’t feel like a job. You will be far more successful at what comes naturally to you than any job or skill you pick up. Once you have identified your super power, take classes, read and continue investing in that path on a daily basis.
Women work far more hours than men in the modern workplace, averaging an extra 39 days per year at work.
But, in my experience, it’s not how much you do, but what you do that matters. Learn to say no. Prioritize ruthlessly, pick your battles and stay aligned with the business. Assess opportunities and identify where you can add value strategically, rather than spreading yourself too thin. Doing so will not only prevent you from burning out, but will also make you look smarter and more strategic.
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Hone your people skills.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize both your emotions and the emotions of others, adapting and adjusting your actions as appropriate. When measured against 33 other important workplace skills, emotional intelligence was the “strongest predictor of an individual’s performance.”
To build your leadership skills, practice empathy and learn how to manage situations as they unfold. Listen actively, get familiar with employee pain points and put yourself in your colleagues’ shoes. Network with people across all levels in the company. As a designer, I had to serve my customers; as a design leader, I have to serve my team.
Leverage clarity and confidence.
Strong communication is essential to your perception as a female leader. I’ve found that speaking with impact to colleagues, superiors and even strangers requires clarity and confidence. It’s particularly important to maintain composure in high-stress situations, with 79 percent of senior executives noting that confidence and “grace under fire” are important characteristics in female leaders. What’s more, overconfidence is a consistent character trait among successful entrepreneurs.
Speak and act with purpose and ownership in the workplace. If you know your space really well you will be able to speak to it with clarity and confidence.
Related: 4 Easy Ways to Help Women Succeed in Business
Trust your gut.
Too often, women become comfortable in their current positions and fail to grow into management roles or take on new challenges. I’ve found that the solution to stagnation is to trust your gut.
Take action when you feel yourself becoming static in your position. It’s easy to stay in a role once you are comfortable. Push forward as soon as you become comfortable. Every six months, take some time to reflect on your current role. Are you doing something more than last year, have you grown professionally, what are you learning, who are the people around you? Are you learning from them or are they burning you out? If you find yourself questioning your honest answers, move on. Don’t stay too long in a role or a company that doesn’t challenge you.
All women face considerable challenges when it comes to advancement in tech. Establishing executive presence is a key factor in building your perception as a leader. Use these tactics — master your strengths, work smarter and well with others, exude confidence and trust your gut — and you’ll continue climbing upward toward a healthy and enduring career.
Executive presence doesn’t always mean being the best in the room. Instead, strive to be the person that people want to work with. Remember that a boss has a title, a leader has people.