Women in Leadership: 5 Lessons for Navigating Change

December 16, 2021

Whether in the day-to-day context or amid the upheaval wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the struggles of leadership are universal. For women, who continue to battle gender stereotypes in the workplace and shoulder a disproportionate share of care responsibilities (among other obstacles), the choice to exercise leadership comes with additional layers of challenge.

As part of its Women Advancing Leadership program, Women’s World Banking recently hosted a virtual discussion on “Leading Through Challenge and Change,” allowing program participants to learn from the real-life experiences of three women leaders from diverse backgrounds: Elsie Addo Awadzi, Second Deputy Governor of the Bank of Ghana, Aya Khairy, Senior Director of Marketing and Learning at Microfund for Women (Jordan) and Karina Byrne, Head of Corporate Communications – Investment Bank & Americas at Credit Suisse.

Drawing from this candid conversation, below are five lessons learned from leading through times of challenge and change:

  1. Empathy is your strong suit—don’t be afraid to play it.

 Particularly in male-dominated industries where men occupy the majority of senior-level positions, the frames of references for leadership accordingly fit the male mold; however, women should be comfortable with having a different leadership style than men—and one that embraces empathy.

Recognizing the emotional needs of your team and co-workers is a critical leadership skill, especially as burnout rates in the workplace have escalated in the past year. Practicing empathy and role-modeling vulnerability underscores that stress, fear, and anger are not failures or flaws. Validating emotions does not compromise workplace standards; rather, it recognizes that we all perform better when we take care of ourselves and others.

  1. Your professional peers can be an invaluable support network.

As you navigate challenge and change in your career, your personal relationships, whether with family or friends, often serve as a critical anchor and go-to for encouragement. The network you build throughout your professional journey is also an invaluable source of support.

Connecting with like-minded and similarly situated women professionals provides an important outlet for voicing doubts and frustrations, sharing experiences and struggles, and offering advice on how to overcome obstacles. These peer exchanges can be incredibly validating and reaffirming; in surfacing commonalities, they serve as a reminder that your fellow leaders are facing similar hurdles. As you seek support from your professional network, it is equally important to reciprocate and help your peers, for example, by facilitating exchanges in person or virtually.

  1. Leaders play a pivotal role in establishing work-life balance. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced much of the workplace into going virtual, the delineation between professional and personal has become more blurred, making work-life balance a seemingly elusive concept. Leaders have tremendous impact on organizational culture, however, and it is incumbent on them to encourage and role-model a healthy balance.

Respecting your team’s personal time goes a long way in creating work-life balance. Avoid sending emails outside of regular office hours—but if you must, make clear that no response is required until the recipient is back online. Encourage your team to leave early or take time off for personal reasons, as needed, barring crisis or emergency times at work. When there is no crisis, there is no need to create one. As many companies are ramping up wellness programs amid the ongoing pandemic, encourage your team to prioritize well-being, whether by taking mental health days or taking advantage of your company’s wellness benefits. When it comes to work-life balance, remember also that you need to lead by example; the more you enforce boundaries, the more likely your team will follow suit.

  1. You’re never too senior to benefit from coaching.

In addition to the support of your mentors and professional peers, coaching can provide much-needed guidance and fresh perspective as you manage the stress of your job.

Like anyone, leaders struggle during phases of challenge and change; as such, it’s important to let down your tough exterior every now and then and allow yourself to be vulnerable. A trusted coach can help you evaluate how you’re engaging with your team and managing workplace pressures, strategize ways to overcome obstacles or plateaus, develop your leadership skills, and improve your performance. While you may be in a senior position, note that your coach does not necessarily have to be older or in the same role; look for someone who has professional coach training, has worked with people like you, and can offer perspective.

  1. Stay true to your purpose and values.

The day-to-day stress of our jobs or unexpected crises at work can leave us doubting our professional abilities or questioning our career paths. In times like these, it helps to maintain a clarity of purpose and values as you shape your professional trajectory and leadership legacy.

Authentic leadership requires self-awareness and self-reflection. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Ask yourself why you do what you do and why you are where you are; if your present situation doesn’t align with your core purpose and values, it might be time to reassess your choices. Of course, self-reflection is easier said than done; it may help to speak with a trusted sponsor, coach, or peer to navigate back to the north star of your career.