Leadership tips from real women
Leading projects for the first time can be daunting. You might worry about how you’re going to manage people or a hectic workload. If you’re looking for advice from people who’ve been there before, look no further! These real-life female leaders have plenty of tips to help you.
When we think of leaders, we often think of great politicians, sports stars or business icons. Rarely do we think about ordinary people going about their everyday work. But if you stop and think for a second, your town, village or city is probably full of inspiring leaders. People who lead projects, teach classes, break sales targets or run their own businesses.
It’s always nice to learn from real people, so we interviewed four inspiring leaders to find out about their experiences and recommendations for new or aspiring project leaders.
Are leaders made or born?
Leadership skills can be learned through experience, training or reading widely. However, some people do seem naturally good at leadership, as they possess traits like self-confidence, courage and strong communication skills.
Everyone interviewed had mixed feelings about natural leadership. Sophia Benzina, UK Marketing Programme Manager at Huawei, said: ‘I don’t necessarily believe that some people are born to be leaders, but I do believe leadership skills and behaviours are all acquired during our early childhood.’
For Sophia, it isn’t until someone is put into the right circumstances that they can truly shine. She went on to say: ‘at school and university, I always thought I wasn’t much of a leader. This changed when I got my first job at Microsoft. As soon as my environment changed, and I was working on a project, I could finally show my leadership abilities. I realised my leadership skills were strong and this was a moving moment for me.’
Suzanne Linton, Founder and Managing Director of Freestyle, believes people can possess traits that make them ideal for leadership, but this isn’t enough. She said: ‘People can be naturally charismatic, focussed, naturally a lot of things, but bringing together all the components of a great leader is done through hard work and learning new skills. However, whether everyone is capable of leadership is debatable.’
The strongest believer in natural leadership, Sophie Lorford, Head of Digital Marketing at myAko, believes practical skills can be taught, but you need an extra something to be a leader. She said: ‘As a leader, you need to be able to motivate, energise, support and encourage your team. Often that must come organically from inside. I think management skills can be taught, like time management and prioritising. But the energy to motivate and push your team must come from within!’
How to deal with conflict
One of the major fears for new leaders is dealing with conflict. Whether this is conflict between team members, or conflict directed at the leader, it’s an unpleasant aspect of leadership. But it can be managed effectively. All our interviewees agreed on this and shared some excellent tips!
Kim Le Pham, CEO of Morning Lavender, said communication is key within her company. She said: ‘Whenever we have a conflict, we talk with all parties involved and see if we can resolve it step by step. We also see if we can make the resolution a policy to prevent similar conflicts or situations in the future.’
Sophia Benzina also believes strong communication prevents conflict, saying: ‘My approach is very simple. I believe that the root of all conflicts is lack of communication. My role as a leader is to ensure my team members communicate with each other and that I help them to do so. If there’s a disagreement, I will hold a meeting to enable my team to share their grief and resolve their issue. It’s also important that everyone understands the business goals first, and personal objectives second.’
For Sophie Lorford, communication plays a strong role in conflict resolution, but so does listening to both viewpoints. She said: ‘Communicating whilst stressed or via emails and short sentences can cause conflict. Finding out both sides of the story without taking impulsive action based on one person’s account is the way to go! I also think it’s important not to embarrass either party. You can easily pass on an apology from one person to the other, rather than forcing them to apologise, hug or do something they feel uncomfortable with.’
How to motivate your team
Even the strongest team can fall apart when times get tough. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to motivate your team and push them to succeed. Luckily, there are multiple ways to motivate people. Suzanne Linton recommends close involvement with your team. She says you should: ‘listen to your team and guide them. Set goals for them and act on their recommendations. Give them autonomy in their own specialisms. Involve them in the wider business decisions so that they understand the impact of their actions on the whole company.’
Sophia Benzina believes motivation comes from the leader, saying: ‘there’s one very important rule - the team is as enthusiastic as its leader. Keeping that in mind will help any manager or project leader to keep a powerful team spirit in the office. But of course, there are other essential elements of motivation: clear vision, empowerment, appreciation and a little bit of fun!’
Kim Le Pham also agrees team members should be closely involved in the company. She also believes in offering rewards, saying: ‘one of the ways I motivate my team is making each person feel valuable to the overall success. We identify each person's role and make them aware of how their role is essential to the company's growth and success. We also offer employee awards and bonuses to acknowledge those who have gone above and beyond.’
Recommended leadership books and training
The best leaders are always striving to learn more and be more effective. There are plenty of leadership courses available out there to hone your skills. And don’t forget about the wealth of books, articles and videos available these days.
Kim Le Pham enjoys reading articles to see ‘how others have approached situations and how it might best fit our team.’ Sophie Lorford is also a big fan of reading to learn leadership skills, saying: ‘I’ve read quite a few articles on Forbes and LinkedIn, and bought a book called The Girl's Guide to Being a Boss Without Being a Bitch by Caitlin Friedman.’
Suzanne Linton is learning new leadership skills ‘all the time’. She says: ‘I was part of a CEO group for a while. I gained lots of experiences and opinions from different types of businesses. But I’m always reading books - business books, books on human nature. Never stop learning!’
For Sophia Benzina, constant self-development is very important. She said: ‘Luckily I’ve worked for big corporations where training programs were accessible to everyone. I took advantage of those programs, especially leadership ones. Leadership is one of my favourite subjects as I believe there’s no limit for improvement. If there’s no training opportunity at your company, then there’s always so much information online or in books. For example, I’m currently reading the book The Exceptional Speaker by Alan Stevens, which covers a lot about speaking and chairing meetings.’
One last piece of advice…
Each of our interviewees had one last tip for aspiring leaders out there. Here’s what they had to say!
Suzanne Linton recommends that you ‘be humble, be real, surround yourself with brilliant people who challenge you. Ignore the rules and go with your gut feeling!’
Kim Le Pham says ‘lead by example. Our team is invested in the company because they understand how hard I've worked to build it. They see me involved in daily activities and see how important each task is, no matter how big or small.’
Sophia Benzina’s advice is to ‘see the fine line between leading and managing (especially micro-managing). I see it often with so many managers who hold leadership positions. In the corporate environment, most leaders are not chosen by their team and those leaders sometimes forget that the true role of a leader is to lead by example. Don’t expect your team to work for you - make sure they work with you. One of my favourite mottos often used at Huawei is one team - one dream’.
Finally, Sophie Lorford says ‘female leaders can be often seen as emotional, power-hungry or snappy much quicker than a man would be. This can sometimes make communications difficult, so my tip for leadership as a woman is to always communicate honestly, be honest with your thoughts and communicate face-to-face or by phone where possible. This saves your team re-reading emails, worrying about your feedback, or worrying that you’re angry if you don’t use smiley faces or exclamation marks!’
Each leader interviewed has provided very relevant advice. For example, communication is vital when resolving a conflict, valuing and empowering your team will motivate them to succeed, and leaders should lead by example. As a new or aspiring leader, there’s lots you can do to increase your skills. Reading, training, watching videos or speaking with a mentor can all work wonders. We hope the advice found here has helped you.
About the interviewees
Sophia Benzina is UK Marketing Programme Manager at Huawei, a multinational telecommunication company. Huawei is well-known for its smartphones. Learn more about Sophia here.
Kim Le Pham is CEO of Morning Lavender, an online fashion boutique. Morning Lavender was featured on the annual Inc. 500 List, which lists the 500 fastest-growing companies in the US. Learn more about Kim here.
Suzanne Linton is Founder and Managing Director of Freestyle, a multiple award-winning digital agency that specialises in marketing ‘non-sexy’ businesses. Find out more about Suzanne here.
Sophie Lorford is Head of Digital Marketing at myAko, a tech company creating eLearning and tools to make working life easier, such as task lists, training management and internal comms solutions. Learn more about Sophie here.