Navigating your way into leadership

Three cheerful businesswomen walking together in an office

Article by Pamela Odukoya, Toastmasters International       

Aspiring for a leadership role can bring up feelings of empowerment, trepidation and excitement. On the other hand, some people are “accidental leaders”; they fall into a leadership role by a stroke of luck with little preparation.

I made a conscious decision to aspire to a leadership role and my feelings were centred on empowerment and excitement.    My early experience of leadership was defined by fear, confusion and distrust.  I had very few female role models and coupled with the negative narrative about female leaders, discrimination, and unequal pay, I was initially hesitant to aspire for a leadership role.

My hesitancy made me feel powerless and it fuelled my passion to change the leadership landscape for women and ethnic minorities.  I had a vision for a workplace where everyone feels safe, collaborate effectively and get the support they need to grow.  I yearned for security, growth and empowerment.

Armed with this passion and vision, I embarked on my leadership voyage. After 15 years, I can confidently say that I am proud of my development and achievements.  I have led teams across the private, public and voluntary sector and achieved the Chartered Management award. Furthermore, I have influenced and inspired other females to aspire for leadership through coaching and mentoring.

From my varied experience, I recognise the barriers females and ethnic minorities experience in their quest for a leadership role and these include discrimination, inflexible work arrangements and limited access to role models.  While some of these barriers are systemic and therefore difficult to change, I would encourage you to nurture your aspiration to be a leader and commit to make it happen.  By focusing on the things you can control and can change, you will gain the tools to influence situation and take your much deserved place at the table of high performing female leaders.

Here are four ways to help you navigate your way into leadership:

Start with your “why”?  It is imperative that you reflect on your raison d’etre for aspiring to a leadership role.   This process would help you to persevere through the stormy ocean of discrimination, staff resistance and poor performing teams.   In my case, my “Why” was crystal clear.  I wanted to make a change and was determined to make it happen.  Be aware that a job interview for a leadership role will seek to establish your “Why.” Convincing responses to this question can include: “to take on more responsibility” “to influence change, “to enhance my skills”.   Steer clear of reasons that hint on fame, power, money or privilege because they distract from the real purpose of leadership.

Embrace a leadership mindset: This would involve reflecting on your attitude, values and beliefs.  The outcome can lead to greater clarity about your role and confidence to make crucial decisions and develop your own style.  It was a light bulb moment for me when I went through this process. The enormity of my responsibilities as a leader became very clear.  Initially, I was a bit uncomfortable to embrace the myriad of my responsibilities especially the performance management aspect of my role. Once I got over this initial feeling, I was able to motivate myself to enhance my planning and performance management skills and I did this through shadowing experienced leaders and taking part in Action Learning Sets.

Seize all learning opportunities: We live in a changing world and it is crucial that you update your knowledge on a regular basis and help your team do the same.  This can be through formal learning such as a Leadership Development course or through informal opportunities such as reading and networking events. I would encourage you to set your own learning plan because learning can help you to improve your skills and knowledge.   I take full advantage of all learning opportunities such as seminar and Leadership Channels on You Tube.  As a member of the Chartered Management Institute, and Toastmasters International, I have access to a well-resourced knowledge and training hub as well as events.  Creative methods that can offer great learning opportunities include Secondment opportunities, Action learning Sets, Coaching and Mentoring and I have experienced the value of all of them.

Communicate with impact: Water cooler chats are now another opportunity for you to listen and engage.  Therefore, be mindful of what you say; this is because your team is likely to interpret your personal views as the views of the organisation.  This is something I struggled with at the start.  However, with greater awareness of the impact of my communication, I started to learn more about communication and develop my skills in this area. As an example, I joined Toastmasters International, a public speaking and leadership organisation, and actively participated in the Education programme. I also became a Trustee for two organisations which has helped me to communicate with different audiences.  Another aspect to consider is, how do you make people feel in your presence?  It is important to reflect on this.  In the words of Mary Angelou, “people will never forget how you make them feel.”   Your communication has the potential to be either inspiring or demotivating.   As a leader, I would encourage you to aim to inspire others when you communicate.  I find that the use of active listening, stories, facts and figures help me to communicate with impact.

Make a commitment today and start with your “Why”.

Pamela Odukoya About the author

Pamela Odukoya is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org


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