Throughout my career, I have learned many valuable lessons about developing relationships and finding meaningful ways to connect with peers and colleagues. I also learned that cultivating a culture where everyone, regardless of gender, can be heard and supported is how you build amazing teams.
But it wasn’t until now, in my role as chief executive officer of AAA Washington, an iconic automotive, insurance and travel business, that I realized some key lessons that have helped me navigate and succeed in male-dominated industries.
The “relationship equation” includes the social dynamics and unwritten rules that dictate how relationships are formed and maintained. An episode of “Friends” called, “The One Where Rachel Smokes,” depicts this perfectly. Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) starts smoking when she realizes her boss and co-workers are making business decisions during their smoke breaks.
I had a similar revelation in my current role, except swap “smoking” for “golfing.”
When I started, I asked my predecessor if playing golf was a “requirement” as CEO. While he assured me that it wasn’t mandatory, every major event I attended included a round of golf.
My golf skills were not up to par with my peers, so I tried to build relationships in other ways. I quickly found that by choosing not to play, I was left out of the organic conversations that have meaningful impacts on our business.
I’ve taken up golf lessons to be confident on the course, but most importantly, so I can be part of those valuable discussions out on the greens.
While golf would not be my first-choice activity for building relationships, I needed to understand and engage in the “relationship equation” long established by my peers. A recent study found that women “miss out on the chance to be more visible within their organization, converse with decision-makers and put themselves in a better position for promotions because they aren’t engaging in their industry network tools.”
In my current role, that networking tool is golf, my fellow CEOs love it and gravitate toward it. The key is aligning with shared interests and leaning into those.
In an article about Barbara Walters, Clarissa Ward of CNN said that women of Walters’ generation “had to pretend to be men” to succeed in their careers.
Even though Walters was of my grandparents’ generation, I can relate to that in my career. The male-dominated cultures I’ve been a part of have sometimes lured me into behaving like my male colleagues. It was what they expected, and I was disparaged or ignored if I didn’t. I soon realized that bringing my authentic self to work creates stronger teams and builds trust and credibility.
For me, so much of this work has been with the support of an executive coach. Through her, I’ve better understood my inherent strengths, blind spots and development opportunities. I meet with my executive coach once a month, continually focusing on being genuine and showing up as a healthy leader.
Your superpower is having the courage to be true to who you are. Don’t compromise – lean into your unique perspectives and life experiences.
When women come together to support one another, we open doors, create opportunities and advance our careers. When I got the call from the recruitment firm for the AAA Washington CEO position, I wasn’t sure if I was up for the challenge. I called a friend to ask her opinion, and her response was an immediate, “Yes, and here are 10 reasons why.” Her support and encouragement gave me the boost I needed to pursue the opportunity confidently.
Sometimes, all it takes is encouraging words or a small act of kindness to lift other women up and remind them of their potential.
Take the time to recognize other women and step up as a mentor, help women make connections and see the value they bring to their role and their organization. Provide women with opportunities to test their skills and build their confidence. I have no desire to be the only woman in the room.
If we work together, we will start seeing representation at all levels and create a support system that helps us advance and succeed.
Heather Snavely is chief executive officer of AAA Washington.
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