Industry Insights

How to Rise the Ranks: Advice From a Female Leader on Making it in the Business World

Posted by April Giarla on Mar 15, 2019 9:16:24 AM

Ensuring that women have the essential tools they need to flourish in the workplace and rise to leadership positions requires efforts from every aspect of society, from their personal networks to the organizations that employ them.

We’ve asked Barbara Thompson, a Learning Experience Architect at GP Strategies, and a woman who has made remarkable strides within the domain of learning & development, to share her personal career experience and tips on how women can succeed and become effective leaders .  

Barbara Thompson

Can you describe your current role? 

I work in the field of Learning Innovation & Transformation which in practical terms means a combination of strategic and operational activities. I work with clients to analyze and improve the impact and performance of their learning ecosystem with specific interventions.  Talent Development is an area that apparently gives CEOs sleepless nights, wondering if they have the right people in the organization to deliver against the business strategy.  There is clearly more work for my industry to raise the bar of our own capabilities and contributing towards business outcomes.

What achievement are you most proud of in your career? 

I wouldn't say there’s one big thing, but a continuous activity of development that I’ve undertaken to operate as a modern learning practitioner.  Recognizing that learners are now savvier than ever, I endeavor to implement a design mindset in my work. I also lead multi-disciplined project teams, including technical and creative agencies, and am constantly out of my comfort zone which allows me to continue to learn on a day-to-day basis. 

Was there a key event or moment that catapulted you into your role? 

Funnily enough, my former manager made a very sensible decision several years ago to change my title to Learning & Performance Consultant.  This positioned me as a business partner, reinforcing my role as an advisor who analyzes needs. That was a game changer as I personally shifted my tone and developed influencing skills to have greater gravitas.

Was there an inspiring role model or mentor that helped guide you in your career? If so, how did this person help you? 

I’ve benefited from a variety over the years and the constant has been my Mum because I saw someone with fabulous resilience in a number of situations which would challenge most people.  She also changed her career in her 40’s once her children were grown and I’m so proud of her bravery to reinvent herself. 

Specifically, I could call out 2 more, one a male former manager who told me not to dim my light and hide for fear of people not liking it.  Such wise words! Also, he encouraged me to join key senior meetings he attended to get a sense of the dynamics in those meetings and over time for me to contribute which raised my profile.  Another is a fabulous lady who interviewed me for a position and midway said, “this isn't the job for you, you are far more talented than this” and was able to create a position for me. 

Do you mentor other women? If so, how?

Yes I do (as well as men) through a variety of ways including people at my company. I’m also a mentor on a site called ‘Connect Mentors’ and via personal request. I’m currently mentoring a young lady who is early in her career, thematically we are currently discussing authenticity and how to effectively network inside and outside of her organisation.  In order to be flexible with our availability, we meet via Skype every 6 weeks, however, the initial ‘contracting’ was done face-to-face.

For me, mentoring is such a necessary development tool, I am a mentee as well as a mentor and get to wear both hats.  The value I get from being mentored is the focus around goals in a safe conversation and crucially from someone who has walked a path that I’m considering/trying.  Having a sounding board helps with perspective taking and in some cases, I get access to my mentors’ networks.  Put simply, the value of mentoring is immeasurable.

Was there a specific obstacle that you encountered in your career? If so, how did you overcome it?

I remember being in a room where I so happened to be the only female.  That didn’t bother me, but when I gave a point of view about something that wasn't the main view it was suggested that it was my time of the month so that’s why I’m being argumentative by not agreeing.  I paused for what seemed like ages and replied, “no, that’s next week but thank you for your concern, can we get back to discussing points of view in an adult way, I’ll tell you why I believe X needs some more thought.”

Barbara speaking at a learning technologies conference.Barbara Thompson as a panel speaker at a learning technologies conference. 

What do you think holds women back from getting promoted to leadership? 

A combination of two things that I’ve observed:

  • 1) A bias that [she] is likely to “go off and have a baby” and therefore disrupt the team. 
  • 2) Impostor syndrome can get in the way.  Without perpetuating gender differences, it is widely acknowledged that women are less likely to apply for roles if we don't tick most or all of the elements on a job specification.  We obviously don't need everything on the list and welcome a role stretch.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I can’t believe that in 2019 pay inequality is even a thing!  Also, expectations about how women should and shouldn't behave ranks highly. Everyone seems to have a view about how we should conduct ourselves.  Whilst I’m not a mother myself, I’d like to see better examples of integrating women who return from maternity leave and realistic perceptions of part-time working.  In many respects, some of the challenges we have are the same in wider society.

How can organizations ensure that their female talent has the needed tools to become leaders?

As I craft solutions which are based on human-centered design approaches, I would have to say that we need to have dialogue around that, ask questions! Ask people what the barriers are, understand context from both sides of the fence so that tools can help with system-wide behavior change. Each organization will have their unique characteristics and culture so there’s not a one size fits all in terms of tools needed to navigate being a leader in organizations.

What advice would you give other women aspiring to take on leadership positions?

  • First, be clear about why you want the position. Leadership can be hugely rewarding but don't just step into it because it’s offered to you or you feel it’s the right move. If you haven't already got a mentor, get one! 
  • Also find a ‘sponsor’ in your business, someone who is your advocate and can open doors, support your brand when you are not in the room.Surround yourself with good people who give you valuable and constructive feedback and not ‘yes-men.’
  • It’s also important to connect with people who have different perspectives to your own. Develop skills in emotional intelligence and influencing skills. I’ve found that even when women are functionally strong, we sometimes have to work harder to influence! When you have challenging situations, write down what happened in a journal and how that made you feel. 
  • Monitor the narrative for consistencies and have more awareness of the situations where these manifest.  Often, unless you have the data to appreciate what’s happening, then you can't do anything to remediate.  It could be speaking to an individual, it could be personal development, and in extreme circumstances it could be removing yourself from toxic environments. 
  • Lastly, speak with confidence. Women can sometimes struggle with this and tend to present assertions as questions by inflecting at the end of their sentences (also known as uptalk). Unfortunately, that diminishes our credibility!

Learn how to develop women in leadership positions by watching our webinar, alternatively, read our guide on Implementing Successful Women's Leadership Programs

Topics: Women Leadership

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