Learning to Lead in the 21st Century

Saturday, March 29th, 2014
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“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders,” writes Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

This may be true, but with women making up less than 13 per cent of the construction workforce, we’ve got a long way to go, baby.

At a recent Women in Property and Construction breakfast, a panel of emerging female leaders agreed that women remain one of the most underutilised resources on the planet. How we nurture the talents of 50 per cent of our population is not simply an ethical issue, it’s a productivity issue.

There are structural and cultural barriers that prevent more women in our industry from reaching their potential, and it starts from the moment women begin their careers. The average starting salary for female graduates moving into construction careers is $9,000 less than their male counterparts, for instance.

However, some of our future female leaders are tackling these structural and cultural challenges head on, and they have some lessons to share.

Take your seat at the table

Women more frequently fall victim to the ‘imposter syndrome’ than their male counterparts, and can’t shake the feeling they will be found out for what they really are – impostors with limited skills or abilities.

To reject the imposter syndrome, don’t be afraid to take your seat at the table, even if you are the only woman in the room.

“I don’t even notice when I’m the only woman working on a project,” says Anita Borella, senior project manager at GHD. “I think it’s about having the confidence to know I deserve to be there. When people see that I’m confident in my own abilities, they are also confident in my abilities.”

Put yourself out there

Lend Lease product development manager Laila Mehrpour believes women mustn’t be afraid to “put themselves out there”, or as Sheryl Sandberg says, “lean in”.

“It’s true that your resolve will be tested, and sometimes the only way to break down barriers is to invest in learning to demonstrate the steps you are willing to take,” she says.

For Mehrpour, this meant enrolling in a Master’s degree through Cambridge University that required her to fly to the UK every three months for two years.

“I needed to push myself beyond what I thought was possible and beyond what everyone else thought was necessary,” she says.

Embrace innovation

Elyse Francis, contract administration for Hindmarsh, believes women don’t need to go to such extremes to succeed.

“Often, you don’t need to do something grand to stand out – innovate, take initiative, provide feedback to improve the project or your workplace,” she advises.

Look for lifelong learning

“Between your comfort zone and your panic zone is your learning zone,” says Jo Metcalfe, GHD’s operating centre manager for ACT and Southern NSW.

The panel agreed with her that learning is inseparable from leadership. Admitting that you don’t know everything isn’t a failing.

Instead, “embrace the fact that there is so much to learn,” Francis suggests.

Borella believes “the best learning is done informally by surrounding myself with people who know more than me.”

Karen Billington, Northrop’s sustainability technical manager, underscores the importance of feedback.

“I always ask what I could have done differently to build and grow,” she says.

Take risks

For Mehrpour, the only thing more important than taking risks is being seen to take risks.

“People will respect you more for looking outside the square,” she says.

This requires a shift in mindset from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do this’ to ‘I will learn by doing it.’

“When I feel comfortable, I know I need to do something new to challenge myself,” says Billington, while Metcalfe calls it “searching for the butterflies in the tummy.”

Climb the jungle gym, not the ladder

Sheryl Sandberg says that we must reconsider the concept of the ‘corporate ladder’, suggesting that a successful ascent is more akin to climbing a jungle gym with multiple paths to the top. Billington agrees, arguing that having children is not about taking a step back, but seeing it as time for a career recalibration.

“Having a baby has enabled me to build skill sets in new areas while I balance a career and family life,” she says.

Be yourself

You’ll never know what you’re capable of you don’t try – and always “be true to yourself” the panel advised. Women must recognise their potential to innovate simply because they think differently, Francis says.

The message from the panel was clear: career opportunities will not be handed out – they must be seized. They are there for the taking, and a growing number of future female leaders are grasping them with both hands.

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