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2.x.women_leadersFour years ago, just before heading back to work after the birth of my second child, I spoke to my close friend Taal about juggling the needs of kids, a household, and work. Taal, a mother of young children and a Senior Vice President in the fashion industry, assured me, “You will drop balls. That’s OK. Everyone knows that. Just make sure they aren’t the important ones.”

I've kept that advice in mind nearly every day since. It has reminded me to prioritize and keep perspective. And, ultimately, it has given me the freedom to fail a little so that I can succeed where it matters.

This advice only highlights some of the wisdom women leaders have to share. Over the years, I have gained a healthy admiration for leaders like Taal, women who have achieved great heights in their careers while also prioritizing family and a healthy lifestyle. Luckily, and in honor of Women's History Month, a few of these women were willing to share some of the challenges they face as well as advice they would give to emerging leaders today.

Although each of the women I spoke to worked in different industries, they share some common challenges having to do with project prioritization, macroeconomics, and more. But what they speak about with passion—and what they prioritize and see as a continuing area of opportunity—is the notion of developing relationships.    

Unlocking Your Team's Success

By far the biggest “area of opportunity," as Taal put it, lies in people. “At the end of the day," she said, "we may sell a product, but it’s really all about people. My job is to unlock the potential and success of my team.”

For her, this means understanding each person as a whole so that she can address and accommodate their specific needs. She works to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and motivations of each team member and coach them accordingly. She also acknowledges the importance of understanding what is happening with them on a personal level in order to best support and lead them.

Mentoring and Team-Building

Linda, a general manager at a large real estate company, agrees. With a small but effective and remarkably innovative team, Linda manages an entire community, complete with residential and commercial spaces, and believes in the importance of "meeting every single employee where they are."

She adds: “It’s a lot of work and, oftentimes, we get so bogged down with our own deadlines and our own metrics that we forget that all these people are also relying on us for their career growth." If we don’t take time to mentor and engage in team-building and soft-skills development, she adds, "we’re actually robbing people the opportunity to excel in themselves. But you have to be so intentional about it."

Networking: Building a "Community Within a Community"

Adi, a director of strategy and operations at one of the world’s largest tech companies, also puts people at the heart of one of her work, and for her it's about building and strengthening professional relationships. She is deliberate about identifying and connecting with people, in and out of her organization, with whom she can collaborate. “I can’t say how critical [this network] is”, she adds. She notes that different departments within an organization often face similar challenges, yet each will try to solve their problems separately. But a professional network allows leaders to solve issues together—and to do so in a more unified manner for the broader organization.

Here at Insight Experience, we call this an organizational mindset: thinking beyond one’s own silo and seeing the bigger picture of the company as a whole. But Adi says it can be hard—and takes time—to find the right people, particularly in a large organization. It is, she notes, not only about being at a company long enough to know employees, but it is also about purposely putting time on the calendar for networking. "Sometimes I need to invest in this over more business-oriented problems," she said. "Working to build relationships and a network is critical to anyone’s success and career. I also find it fun, so I build a community within a community, within my own company, and it makes the work more enjoyable.”

Adi explained that two years ago, when she started her current position, she began to ask everyone she met to introduce her to three additional people who would be good connections. Not all of those meetings led to deeper relationships, but establishing this structure encouraged her to be proactive about growing her network. Even now, Adi has at least one to two calls a week to help her maintain—or create—relationships.

Setting Aside Time

Nicki, a Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for a leading digital health company, also advocates for personal relationships and creating connections between people. Nicki, like Taal, reframed my questions about this from "challenges" to “areas of opportunity.” She has always seen herself as someone who creates community within an organization, even when it’s not technically part of her job.

Nicki doesn't currently run a team, but she does channel an ownership mentality. She has seen firsthand how individuals in matrixed and complicated environments can fall through the cracks and go unseen. So she regularly organizes, and pays for, lunches to bring people together. These are not working lunches: The idea is to create personal relationships. "You're not just working in a vacuum," Nicki explains. "There is a focus on the personal, and then the trickle-down to the business improvement is just a natural occurrence that happens.”

Given that connecting to people is a key success factor for these leaders, it’s not surprising that the notion of mentoring, establishing networks, and contributing to teams are pieces of advice they would give to emerging leaders. Here are their tips for leaders on the rise, particularly those juggling work and parenthood.

  • Establish a network and bring people into your fold. As Taal reminds me often, no one can do it alone. A strong professional network is crucial, but each of these women also has a strong personal network supporting them. That looks different for each of them. Nicki’s husband, for instance, took a sabbatical for several years so she could focus more on work. Linda and her husband split the time shuffling kids around so that she can attend off-hour work events.

  • Find a mentor. Adi stresses the need to find a mentor who is not only smart but also someone who "truly cares about you and your career growth.” For most of the women interviewed, their mentors come from inside their organizations. These relationships endured even after mentor or mentee, or both, had changed positions or companies. Nicki recently received a call from the CEO of a company for whom she worked 25 years ago, a man who truly saw her potential then and an excellent leader whom, today, she still strives to emulate.

  • Be proactive and speak up. A former colleague once told Adi: “You write your own resume.” "This essentially means," she explains, “don’t wait for opportunities to come your way. Be proactive and create them. Be the first person to volunteer and to find solutions. And speak up in meetings. Don’t be that silent voice.” Taal adds, "You are a part of your organization and have insights that are important to it. Don’t hold those back.” For Linda, finding her voice also meant learning to advocate for herself. She learned to "define and express her non-negotiables." This has allowed her, she shared, to pursue professional and personal activities that keep her energized, interested, and good at her job.

  • Most of all, be resilient. You will get knocked down. You will get a bad review. You will make a wrong call. You will, as Taal told me all those years ago, drop a few balls. But if you are resilient, you will become a better leader. "You have great things to say," says Adi. "Share them." The worst-case scenario, she adds, is that a decision will be made that is not aligned with your opinion. "But your opinion was heard. Be that person, and I think the future can be bright.”

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