This blog post is dedicated to every strong woman who’s worked to empower another woman in the workplace.
Last week, I was paid quite a compliment: “One of my favorite things about you is that you constantly work to empower those around you … especially the women.”
I thought about that comment the whole hour-long drive home that night. I realized how fortunate I am to have had strong women guiding and mentoring me my entire career.
When I was 18 years old, I was assigned to a teacher to observe for a practicum. I was terrified of that woman. She was strong and well-respected by her peers and students, and she always spoke her mind. Mrs. M and I were total opposites. I was a meek, quiet student who lacked confidence in my skill and ability. She challenged me to be better. Mrs. M held me to high standards and held me accountable for my actions. I wish I could say that it was all smiles and rainbows, but there were some growing pains along the way. Truth be told, she made me a better teacher, leader and person.
Four years later, imagine my surprise when I was paired with her again. Suddenly, I found myself confiding in her, using her knowledge as a resource and mimicking her style. She was amazing to learn from. She insisted that I be part of everything she was doing in all of her classes. She kept me informed, and she did something nobody had ever done before: She asked for my thoughts regarding the students. The first time did so, I felt surprised and honored.
The respect we built was mutual. Not only did she include me in all of her decisions, but she listened to my ideas, thoughts and concerns. She was the first professional to treat me as her equal. To Mrs. M, I wasn’t some kid she was responsible for babysitting; I was a colleague whom she was preparing to potentially be her successor.
She was more focused on my succession and growth than I could have been at that stage in my life. To this day, when I talk to her, she asks what my next big adventure will be and how I plan on getting there.
After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I had difficulty finding a position teaching in a K-12 setting, so I took a job as a unit secretary in a local hospital. I wasn’t upset, because I viewed it as a stepping stone to my future. It wasn’t where I wanted to be, but it was a foundation. I was going to learn skills and build experience wherever I ended up.
While working as a unit secretary, I worked with a nurse named Barb. Barb saw something in me that I didn’t even know existed. It was her influence that led me to a huge step into the career that I have now. She was an oncology nurse with a passion for specific topics, so I would find articles and white papers that I thought she would enjoy, and we would discuss them. One time, she allowed me to lead a unit-based project. After successfully doing so, I found myself taking on responsibilities that were outside of my scope, because my superiors had confidence in me. One day, I found a folder on my desk with my name on it. Inside it was a handwritten note from Barb reading, “Erin, as much as I hate the possibility of losing you on this unit, I can’t let your skills wither on the vine. Read the job description attached and please consider applying. It’s time you are able to help the whole hospital, not just this unit. Barb.”
In the folder was a job description for an internal hospital educator position. While I didn’t meet all of the requirements, I decided to give it a chance, because what did I have to lose? Even though I was initially denied for that position, I’d still apply for it if I could do it over again. In fact, don’t be too disappointed for me. Spoiler alert: I ended up getting that job after all.
Two months later, there was another nurse named Shelly who was also instrumental to setting me on my path. Shelly was a nurse educator and an adjunct for a local university nursing program. I scheduled all of her students the same way that I set up my daily nurses’ assignments. After the third Saturday working with Shelly, she asked me if I realized how special I was.
I never consider myself to be special; I merely work hard and take care of the people around me. I mentioned that I applied for the open position in the education department. She spent a long time building my confidence and encouraging me to push on. She said that her manager, Carol, had already conducted interviews and was waiting on projects from each of the three candidates before making a final decision. Although she warned me that it would be a long shot, she encouraged me to reach out anyway.
That night, I went home and gathered all of my courage. It was the boldest career move I’d ever considered. I didn’t know what I was I was doing, but I emailed Carol, the manager of that department. I asked directly for an interview, because I knew what I was capable of doing. My heart raced as I clicked “send” that night. It took two weeks to hear a response, but three days after receiving that first response, Carol made an offer to me for a position I had originally been denied.
That position turned out to be a pivotal opportunity for growth and development. I was surrounded by strong, intelligent and kind women who held me to high standards and supported me. Carol was instrumental in my development. She not only nurtured my skill set, but she also challenged me. There were a number of projects when I told her that I had no idea what I was doing, and she insisted that I could do it — and do it well.
She was right. Her support and guidance opened doors that I never knew existed. I thrived under her leadership, because she trusted me, respected me and pushed me to be better than I was before.
The last strong empowering woman I want to write about was a professor I encountered during my doctoral dissertation. Dr. I intuitively knew how to build leaders. She was kind, direct, intelligent and challenging. When I told her I was dropping out of school halfway through a semester because I no longer had faith I could finish it, she stopped me dead in my tracks by laughing.
“Erin, don’t you get it?” Dr. I said. “You’re always the underdog. People underestimate you, because you underestimate yourself. Stand up, wipe off your face, grit your teeth and make it happen.”
To this day, that laugh echoes in my head. Not only did she stand by me when I was succeeding, but she stood by me when I wasn’t, too. Dr. I encouraged me to think about the big picture and to follow my heart. The day that I presented my doctoral dissertation, she sat in the room and smiled. When I finished, I was so grateful that I thanked her for consistently reminding me of my grit. She laughed and responded that it was my grit that forced her to make me into a better leader.
How to Empower Young Women in the Workplace
10. Be direct, honest and fair. Each of the women I described was direct, honest and fair. They were all capable of acknowledging not only my weaknesses but my successes.
9. Look for their strengths, and work to cater to them. Those women saw strengths in me that I was not even able to see at times, and they all worked to bring those strengths out.
8. Ask for their thoughts, and find ways to use them. Each time I was asked for my thoughts allowed me to express myself in ways that were constructive and challenged me to think outside of the box.
7. Hold them to high standards. It’s a tough world. As much as I hate to admit it, there is still a glass ceiling for women. High standards forced me to reinvent myself and helped me to build confidence in the skill set I was developing.
6. Let them lead. Each of my mentors knew exactly when to lead and when to let me lead. They taught tangible skills that I needed to learn as well as life lessons outside of the workplace.
5. Provide regular feedback. Feedback is a gift. When I know what could be better, I am more willing to improve.
4. Don’t let them know that failure is an option. Even though there were so many times I failed, none of those women made me believe that failure was going to stop me. In fact, each of them helped me to find ways to reinvent failure so that I could be successful the next time.
3. Push to provide opportunities. I credit so many of great leadership experiences I’ve had to the opportunities I was given along the way. Seek out projects or experiences that will help your staff grow. Maybe it’s a conference. Maybe it’s a big project. Find their passions. Most of the time, it’ll be worth the effort.
2. Genuinely believe in their abilities. There has to be a genuine interest in developing each woman as a person.
1. Be the female mentor you needed along the way. Each of these women worked to make sure that I was warned about the barriers that they had faced along the way and helped me prevent mistakes they had made.
After a great deal of reflection, I see that these women empowered me and greatly influenced how I lead today. If I were to offer one piece of advice to current women in leadership roles, it would be to work to empower other women. We may not realize the impact we’re having until afterward.
Many women in leadership want to change the world. By empowering other women, you are making that change you want to see.