7 Female CEOs Offer Inspiring Leadership Advice
When you're looking for leadership advice, why not look to those who are in charge? That's why we've rounded up words of wisdom from seven female CEOs who have stepped up to lead from the front lines of their industries.
From young entrepreneurs to seasoned corporate CEOs, these women have learned how to hone their talents and build teams that allow them to scale, creating impact. A few spoilers: They find value in failure, believe gender balance will improve the world, and know how to earn loyalty from their team members and customers. Read on for their hard-earned secrets to climbing your way to the top. Might be easier than you think.
As president of Focus Brands, the parent company of Cinnabon, we think Kat Cole qualifies as a business executive who can show us a thing or two about being an exceptional leader. She credits her unconventional career path as her biggest strength. After dropping out of college, Cole took a job at Hooters and stayed with the company for 15 years.
"I loved working [at Hooters] and always felt the need to be helpful. When the cooks quit, I went into the kitchen and helped finish. If a bartender needed a hand, I was the one who would jump in," she tells Marie Claire. That kind of willingness to learn and execute landed Cole the opportunity of running the entire training program at Hooters first outlet in Australia—by the time she was 20.
It's Cole's continuous hustle and creative thinking that have enabled her to climb to the top of corporate America. She tells Fast Company, "You are never truly ready, and if you wait until you are, all that experience is not providing you with a return on your investment." If you do wait, Cole warns, "you’ll probably have to unlearn 5% of what you've learned." According to Cole, the best way to learn on the job is to listen. If you listen, "you will automatically skew the odds in your favor," says Cole.
Takeaway: Don't wait until you check all of the boxes to lead. Go for big opportunities, and learn along the way. People follow those who do, not those who wait.
Anne Wojcicki, the CEO and co-founder of 23andMe, a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company that enables consumers to access the hidden information in their genes. Currently valued at $1.1B USD (after raising $115 million USD in Series E funding), 23andMe appeared to be unstoppable.
But in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration slapped the company with regulations, ordering to crease its test kits for not following FDA guidelines when it came to providing healthcare advice. The warning letter from the FDA went public, forcing Wojcicki and her partner, Andy Page, to hire a regulatory expert, Kathy Hibbs.
Wojcicki didn’t just want to get her product out of hot water and put it back on consumer shelves, she wanted to create a company that was over-prepared on the legal and regulatory front so that it could continue with its greater mission: aiding the healthcare industry by capturing as much medical data about the human population as possible.
"One of the positives of having to be off market for two years is that it gave us time to rebuild the entire site," Wojcicki tells Fast Company. She used a period of public scrutiny and negative press to take a close look at her company's flaws and rebuild it as an institution that could not only educate individuals and the entire healthcare system, but also withstand regulatory demands and pave the way for legal progress.
Takeaway: Great ideas, even with steady traction, require resilience. Use your failures to build a stronger company. And, always make sure you have your legal ducks in a row. If you don't, take the time to invest in them as soon as you can.
Caroline Ghosn left her job as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company to found Levo League, a startup with a mission: "elevate young millennials in the workforce by providing the career resources needed to achieve personal and professional success."
One of Ghosn's competitive advantages is her own experience as a young woman in the workforce.
"Levo was born from the firsthand challenge of entering the workforce and finding inadequate resources available," she tells Forbes. "What were people using to navigate their careers? When was the right time to negotiate compensation or give upward feedback? Where could one go to learn and connect if one didn't have mentors or older siblings readily available to share the secrets of this new and unfamiliar environment? The answer was nowhere, and that was not something our team could live with."
With a rapidly growing online community, 22 offline branches, and a phenomenal roster of mentors, Levo League seems to be on the rise. But Ghosn isn't shy about talking about the challenges of entrepreneurship.
"Entrepreneurship is a muscle, and winning is an endurance game. At the end of the day, it begins and ends with having the courage to navigate the next challenge and show up, consistently, no matter what."
Creating a company means that you are committing yourself to others who come to work for you and those who invest in you. You must manage your own energy supply, advises Ghosn, in order to stay in the race.
Takeaway: In order to be successful, you must show up consistently. And to do that, you must take care of yourself.
Lauren Bush Lauren founded FEED, a philanthropic fashion brand that provides meals to starving children from the world, in 2007. After making it on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and donating over 87 million meals, Lauren sat down with Elle to talk about her formula for success.
"First and foremost," she says, "finding a cause that resonates with you and digging deep into that cause and really figuring out the various solutions out there that can move the needle, is really important. I am a big believer that you can have a successful business and give back; it's just about the intention behind starting your business."
For Lauren, the positive impact FEED has been able to have on moving the needle of the hunger crisis in our world has been far greater than any profit on her balance sheets. But that doesn't mean she doesn't appreciate monetary success. "It takes some balancing to figure out how much you can afford to give, but it's definitely possible—and all the more meaningful, if you can strike that balance."
While Lauren has an impressive pedigree, at the beginning of her career, she didn't have "all this crazy startup capital or a ton of knowledge," she says. In fact, she sees her initial naiveté as an advantage. "I think it's actually helpful sometimes to not know all the rules, because that way it's easier to break them."
Takeaway: Don't let not knowing all the steps stop you from starting an endeavor. Pursue your passion and you will eventually learn the rest.
"If you want to do something transformational and make a difference in your own lives and the lives of others, then you need to make bold choices, not just safe incremental ones," Marissa Mayer tells Forbes.
The former Google executive took the helm at Yahoo back in 2012 and, while many of her actions have been criticised, no one could say she has been anything but bold. The media was quick to turn on Mayer after her first year as Yahoo's CEO, but Mayer drove the company in a mobile-first direction and has continued to try her best to sell a company that was struggling before she came on board.
As part of her efforts to strengthen the team, she strove to increase company transparency by holding a weekly meeting for employees to ask questions freely. According to Forbes, a survey conducted by Yahoo found that 92% of employees felt valued and in the loop as a direct result of this practice.
Takeaway: Be bold, even if your actions are unpopular. Try to create a transparent business culture so that your team understands why you are making the decisions that you are making.
"I wanted to have a method of family planning that was high-tech," Tin tells The Guardian. "Since then, I have come to realizse that female health needs to be digitised, and that's what we're working on."
While Tin's app has made it to the top three in the App Store, she still has to fight through the boy's world of venture capital. Creating an app like Clue has the built-in gender barrier of being created "for women," and when you're looking at a room full of men trying to procure investment, it can be hard to do so when your product doesn't cater to their needs. Tin has the incredible ability to frame and communicate the value of her company through a gender-neutral lens.
"We don't view period tracking as a woman-only area but as something that affects everyone," she writes in Time. Tin lives her philosophy by hiring a gender-balanced staff and by encouraging others to do so, too. "My hope is that as more women lead the way in technology, more companies will adopt this model and employ a gender balanced workforce."
Takeaway: A great leader takes a specific problem, solves it, and makes the solution relevant to everyone. Fine-tune your communication and storytelling skills in order to grow your business and build a diverse team.
Alexa von Tobel dropped out of Harvard Business School to found LearnVest, a financial planning company that educates its users by offering personalised advice and an easy-to-use toolset.
As a successful young entrepreneur, von Tobel has natural leadership skills. "I am a great communicator," she tells The New York Times. However, she's also very aware of her weaknesses. "I don't like giving people bad news. I'm a positive person who wants to believe in people. One of the biggest insights for me has been that your gut really knows what you have to do, and sometimes they’re things that are not easy. You have to listen to that and say, this is a really tough decision. It's not one I'm excited about, but it's the right decision, and you have to focus your energy on doing those things."
Von Tobel's levelheadedness and understanding of her own limitations has enabled her to quickly scale her company from a team of five to a team of more than 150 people. She hires based on the same principal—exceptional strengths and an understanding of one's weaknesses.
"I'm impatient. It's what makes me the entrepreneur. I'm not willing to wait for the next month. I'm going to find a way to get there faster, but being impatient creates all kinds of other problems. Then I'll ask again, 'What are you genuinely bad at? What does your spouse or partner or the person that you’re dating tell you you’re bad at?' Because if they haven't told you, then you shouldn't be sitting here, because I can't work with you if you don't know what you're bad at,” she tells The Times.
Takeaway: Understand the value of knowing your weaknesses and the weaknesses of those you work with. Weaknesses aren’t bad, but the repercussions of not knowing them are dangerous. One thing von Tobel admits to saying 100 times a week: "Here’s my bad idea; make it better."
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Which female business leaders inspire you?