4 Women in Leadership Share Their Advice for Rising to the Top

Take it from these professionals: these skills will help you excel in management roles and beyond.

Written by Cathleen Draper
Published on Nov. 22, 2022
4 Women in Leadership Share Their Advice for Rising to the Top
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Audrey Conceicao Stitz distinctly remembers a turning point in her career. 

She had been at ThoughtWorks for three years when a staffing analyst role opened up. The stakes were high: whoever filled it would pair with the department head to staff all ThoughtWorks’ North American accounts. Conceicao Stitz was nervous, but she took a leap and applied. 

“One of the members of the leadership team said he was surprised I got the role and that he wasn’t sure I could do it since it was one of the toughest roles in the organization,” Conceicao Stitz said. 

Over time, the leader was increasingly impressed by how she handled her responsibilities, stood her ground in difficult situations and pushed back with conviction. 

“He later told me that looking back, he wouldn’t have picked anyone else to do the role,” Conceicao Stitz said.

It’s a good thing he didn’t. The position set Conceicao Stitz up for success and continued growth. She’s now head of delivery for North America.

“The amount I learned and the relationships I built helped me immensely,” she said. “Was it easy? No. But I would do it all over again.”

According to research by Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerate women’s progress in the workplace, the global proportion of women in senior management roles hit a high of 31 percent in 2021. More women are becoming directors and C-suite executives.

 

Was it easy? No. But I would do it all over again.”

But Catalyst also found that in the United States, there are more than 10 times as many companies run by men than women, and though women make up 47 percent of the labor force, they only hold roughly 41 percent of leadership roles.

The barriers and biases that prevent women from earning the same number of leadership roles as men are very real: For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are. That discrepancy creates a vicious cycle where fewer and fewer women are promoted at even higher levels. 

Built In San Francisco sat down with four women leaders who have climbed the proverbial ladder. Below, they shared their advice to help other women combat bias and become a new generation of leaders. 

Conceicao Stitz’s best tip? “Don’t let the fear of failure hold you back from walking through a door someone has opened for you,” she said. “Once you walk through it, surround yourself with people who will support and guide you.” 

 

Five men and women smile at a baseball game
Fivetran

 

Shri Sastry
Senior Manager, Growth & Commercial Solution Architecture • Fivetran

Fivetran is on a mission to provide simple and reliable access to data. The company is built for the cloud, so data teams can centralize and transform data from SaaS and other sources into cloud destinations, all to further analytics, operational efficiency and growth.

 

What should individual contributors be doing during their career to prepare for a management role?

Moving into a management role requires you to think about others and not just about yourself. A very important skill to practice is to step back and let those who report to you make decisions. Stepping back does not mean stepping out. It means mentoring and coaching others to make tough decisions. That looks like helping them to understand what they have control over and what they do not have control over. 

Keep an eye out for ways you can help your organization improve, whether it is a unique solution that will revolutionize the industry or an opportunity to streamline a process that could increase revenue. Share these ideas with your leadership team.

Tyler Rockefeller, our sales development manager, abides by seeking opportunities to take on more of a leadership role within your team. That could be onboarding a new hire, mentoring a peer on your team, asking for time during a team meeting to share ideas or best practices or asking to be delegated a task or project by your manager. Taking initiative to do these things will help prepare you for a management role.

 

Stepping back does not mean stepping out. It means mentoring and coaching others to make tough decisions.”

Share a moment when you did something that helped you stand out as a leader at Fivetran.

I found out early in my career that I enjoy coaching and mentoring. I worked with large teams on complex projects, and I invested myself in the success of both the project and the team. I was empathetic and decided the path we should take, even when it was difficult and other team members hesitated to do so. 

Once, our small team was working on a project and the client had trouble meeting the timelines in order for us to complete our portion. I proactively worked with our leadership team and kept them abreast of the situation and the tough choices we would have to make, like resetting expectations with the stakeholders and moving timelines for a successful project delivery. My leadership team saw my commitment to the success of the project and to the success of each team member as I made sure they were not overworked to meet unrealistic expectations. Together, we successfully completed the project, and the client won awards because of the solutions we implemented for them. It showed our leaders the patience, compassion and grit I had and helped me to stand out as a leader.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Learn to think from another person’s point of view. Be accountable, empathetic and trustworthy. Have a growth mindset. Be objective and make decisions based on the information that’s available. Accept that things might not go as planned, and be prepared to change course. And learn to have fun.

 

 

Nancy Zhang
Senior R&D Manager, Material Development • Carbon, Inc.

Carbon’s idea-to-production platform empowers creators to more efficiently make their ideas real with 3D printing. The company is on a mission to create a more open, connected and sustainable manufacturing industry with its platform’s advanced materials, software, hardware and services.

 

What should individual contributors be doing during their career to prepare for a management role?

A career shift from individual contributor to management is a significant change in job scope and responsibilities. It’s helpful to give yourself space to be introspective and examine why you are inspired or motivated to go into a management role. These clear goals act as North Stars to keep you focused on your intentions and guide you when the road toward management seems challenging. It also helps to have these North Stars in mind when deciding on which management positions can help you fulfill your career goals. They serve as topics to anchor career discussions with your manager, upper management or mentors. 

 

Share a moment when you did something that helped you stand out as a leader at Carbon.

I view ambiguity and challenges as opportunities to solve complex problems as a team. In my first year as a manager on Carbon’s materials team, we had a tough technical problem related to the properties of our damping elastomers, which are used in end-use products for impact absorption. At the time, this was a new area of understanding and a new application opportunity for the materials team. We first needed to convince various team leads across Carbon that this was indeed a fundamental gap in our understanding and if Carbon were to continue to invest in these applications, it was worth assembling a team. We solved this problem cross-functionally and were able to apply our learnings toward future application opportunities. The reward was two-fold: our activities benefited the business, and solving this challenge as a team amplified our understanding. 

 

Give yourself space to be introspective and examine why you are inspired or motivated to go into a management role.”

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

As a manager, your role is highly relational, and in relationships, communication — including listening — is key. Communication can be practiced even as an individual contributor. It’s helpful to reflect on how you might provide positive or negative feedback to your colleagues or team. When you have these conversations, try to be aware if you are listening to their concerns and feedback as well.

 

 

Audrey Conceicao Stitz
Head of Delivery, NA Central • Thoughtworks

ThoughtWorks is a tech and software consultancy that uses strategy, design and software engineering to help enterprise businesses and tech distributors thrive as digital businesses.

 

What should individual contributors be doing during their career to prepare for a management role?

Read and continuously learn. Knowledge is power. Acquire it and use it wisely. Choose articles from Harvard Business Review, CNBC and other similar sources. Understanding and keeping abreast of the industry and your own organization’s strategy will help you immensely when ideating. Take courses, learn and continuously add to your tool kit. 

Network, find a sponsor or both. Networking comes easy to some but not to all. If you find networking difficult, make time to find a sponsor: someone who has a seat at the table and won’t hesitate to put your name out in a room full of people who make decisions. I have wonderful sponsors who helped me get various opportunities that have shaped who I am today.

Emotional intelligence, empathy and listening are key. These are skills to learn as an individual contributor and practice on a daily basis. They will take you far, especially when you have to build a high-functioning leadership team one day. They will help you create a safe environment and enable team members to bring their best selves to work.

Articulating ideas clearly and with conviction and passion is a skill you always want to have. Inspirational communication is the hallmark of impactful leaders.

 

Share a moment when you did something that helped you stand out as a leader at ThoughtWorks.

When I got the staffing analyst position, I was learning on the job, and I had to do it quickly. I had a great mentor in the head of staffing. She coached me, guided me and really invested her time in me. I learned so much more than I ever imagined. I had a front row seat to how our business worked. I understood what was valuable, the tradeoffs and how to balance the needs of the organization. This role helped me build a vast network with many different leaders. It helped me showcase my skills, understand my areas of growth and hone in on them. 

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Cultivating empathetic listening and curiosity will make you a great manager and a wonderful leader. When you listen with empathy, you give team members a sense of truly being heard and feeling like they belong. Listening is hard. Listening without distraction and preconceived notions is harder still. But the more you practice it, the better you will become. This will enable you to build valuable relationships by finding similarities between their experience and your own so you can give a more heartfelt response. 

 

Listening is hard. Listening without distraction and preconceived notions is harder still. But the more you practice it, the better you will become.”

Curiosity is a superpower. Invoking curiosity helps you get out of the fight or flight response you might feel in unprecedented and complex situations. Curiosity helps you think critically and ask powerful questions. It helps you to see the risks and challenges and the opportunities.

 

 

Rachel Bland
Vice President, Product Management • Domino Data Lab

Domino Data Lab’s Enterprise MLOps platform uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to both accelerate the development and employment of data science and increase collaboration and governance for enterprise organizations.

 

What should individual contributors be doing during their career to prepare for a management role?

Look beyond your role or group to see how everything fits together. The difference between being a deep subject matter expert or specialist and being someone who is responsible to lead, coordinate and deal with ambiguity is significant, and management isn’t for everyone. 

Get to know yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses. Ask yourself if you are comfortable being accountable for the work of others and how you cope with conflict and situations where you can only influence, not control. Think about your tendencies. Can you let go and invest in enabling others when it would be easier to do something yourself?

Practice, take on stretch assignments that give you an opportunity to lead in some capacity, and get out of your comfort zone so you don’t rely on being an expert and instead must focus on being a force multiplier for others. When you do this, take the time to share what you have learned with others.  

 

Share a moment when you did something that helped you stand out as a leader at Domino Data Lab.

Early in my product management career, I was responsible for a component of a larger product. It was very powerful but very complex and immature, and because it was so different from the prior generation of functionality, it was hated. While I had become a bit of a wizard with the product, that didn’t scale in a growing, global company. I had to lean into the feedback, listen to our sales engineers and customers who were upset and figure out a path forward. Over an 18-month period, I became an evangelist and transitioned from a talented individual contributor to a listener, teacher and change agent. It was something I didn’t know I had in me until the opportunity arose.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Resilience. At the end of the day, you are not the main event. You may be a strong individual contributor, and you may be highly talented, but management requires that you focus more on the strengths of others and providing them with the conditions for success. You need to prioritize, and sometimes that means accepting failures and substandard outcomes on some items as a tradeoff to address something of higher priority to the organization. You are ultimately responsible for the actions and outcomes related to your team and sphere of influence, in good times and in bad.

 

You may be a strong individual contributor, but management requires that you focus more on the strengths of others.”

 

Your function is not collecting personal accolades or credit, it’s setting the tone within your team, establishing a growth mindset, and making space for your team to get things done. More often than not you will be the person who gets the tough, less-polished feedback and turns it into something constructive for the team. If you are lucky, you will also be the one applauding when your team is recognized and celebrated for its efforts and achievements.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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