Throughout the stages of our lives, we as women are presented with so many narratives about who we’re supposed to be, what we’re supposed to look like, what path we’re supposed to follow. But the truth is, the women that we often perceive as leaders often pave their own paths.
A casual survey seeking admirable women in leadership may bring forth names like former First Lady Michelle Obama, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, and global tennis superstar and highest-earning female athlete of all time Serena Williams.
These women aren’t admired because they stuck with the narrative. They walked their own path, guided by their own inner wisdom and the things they knew were right for them.
And so when we approach our own careers, there isn’t much for us to follow. There are no well-worn, tried-and-true paths, and the right path for some leaders may not be right for us.
In talking to women in leadership positions across the corporate world, start-ups, non-profit sector, and community, one shared value that stands out is a spirit of servant leadership. Servant leadership is when a leader focuses on the well-being and growth of their community members as a means toward collective progress. It’s leading by lifting.
Servant leadership encourages meeting people where they’re at, helping them recognize their strengths, and guiding them toward applying those strengths as they move toward their goals. Based on their own experience, much of the guidance coming from these women leaders relies on seeing yourself, knowing yourself, and listening to yourself.
Here are their tips for you as you navigate your own path:
“Most of the time, you’re not going to feel 100 percent ready, or 100 percent prepared, or 100 percent not scared at all,” says Sarah Paiji Yoo, serial entrepreneur and co-founder and CEO of Blueland. “Think of how far you can be by next year if you just start today.”
One key aspect of succeeding is trying—you simply can’t accomplish anything without it. Self-doubt can be a major roadblock to getting started, and, she adds, “these doubts kill way more dreams than failure ever will.” So give your dreams a chance by just beginning.
“Every goal is achieved by taking one step at a time,” says Lestraundra Alfred, founder and host of the podcast Balanced Black Girl. “We often get overwhelmed trying to accomplish large tasks all at once without gaining the skills and insights we need to get there.”
Aspiring creatives often turn to Alfred with technical questions about microphones and audience growth; her first piece of advice is usually to take a few steps back. “Without having a solid message and knowing who it's for, the microphone they use won't matter, and the listenership they're looking to grow won't find them,” she says. “We all have to start from where we are and get clear on our why.”
“Worry more about how you are going to learn and grow than about what role you are going to have next,” advises Kim Caldbeck, Chief Marketing Officer at Coursera. Focusing on the opportunities in front of her—even when they weren’t directly related to her ultimate goals—is how she built the foundational knowledge she uses today in leading across functions.
And ask questions along the way, she adds. “Until you are able to form your own opinions, get a lot of feedback and work to improve and grow each day.”
“Every one to two years, really think about what you want to do and ask yourself if you’re currently doing that or working towards it,” says Imee Chan, a sales manager at a major tech company. Avoid passively riding momentum—actively pursue your path.
To help you stay on track, Chan recommends focusing on the most important things you want to accomplish in a set timeframe. “Say ‘no’ to everything else,” she says—but drop in the occasional unexpected ‘yes.’ “Go check out that networking event, volunteer for that working team at work, schedule that one-on-one with an interesting person,” she adds. “You never know who you’ll meet, what you’ll learn, and what you may achieve when you do.”
“I think all rejections are good,” Michelle Songy, start-up founder and CEO of Press Hook, says. “They help you learn.”
It may feel better to receive positive feedback, but shifting your mindset around rejection can only make you stronger in the long run, Songy adds. Rejection invites you to rebuild better and makes you more prepared for the future. “You don't have to do everything that everyone says—people are going to have their own opinions—but if you do get a rejection, it's a good way to look back at it and say, ‘okay, there's something I can look at, change, and adapt.’”
“There’s no such thing as a right or wrong decision. It’s simply a learning opportunity,” says Angela Kim, Chief Product Officer at Chief, an executive leadership community for women.
Before transitioning into product, Kim started her career in consulting—and quickly realized it wasn’t the right path for her. Rather than spinning into self-doubt, she took the opportunity to build self-awareness, seeking to understand what she didn’t like about consulting, and how to move forward with that new insight. “Reframing it into a decision and not adding judgment made it all that much easier to learn from the experience and apply what I learned to my future career in product and tech,” she says.
“Imposter syndrome is a real thing,” says Natasha Davidson, Coursera’s Chief Marketing Officer for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. “We all have that voice in our ear telling us we shouldn’t, we can’t, don’t you dare—but it’s all in your mind.”
Combat those thoughts by reminding yourself that you are worthy, capable, and you belong—and save the evidence to back it up. “Keep an ‘I am wonderful file,’” Davidson suggests. “This is a folder where you store positive feedback and notes about your work and the impact you’ve had. On those tough days, go to that file and remind yourself of how wonderful you really are.”
“Having the answer to everything is not the answer. Sometimes it's just being able to formulate the question,” suggests Amira Barger, an Executive Vice President at a large communications agency. And having someone to ask those questions to can be crucial. Barger recommends seeking sponsorship.
A sponsor is someone who goes one step beyond mentorship by coaching you through career obstacles in addition to helping you advance in your career by actively elevating your contributions and highlighting your value to people with decision-making power in the workplace.
Start your search for a sponsor with the person you feel you can trust the most. “There is so much trust that's needed to have these conversations,” Barger says. “And if you don't have [that person] yet, what are the characteristics that you would look for such that you could take steps to have someone become that trusted partner so that you can advance these conversations?”
Keep those qualities in mind as you look for jobs, interact with new colleagues, and move along your path.
“Really think about what those things are that you value, what are those things that you need, and look for a work environment that will value your right to pursue those things,” Jaime Koppel, founder of the non-profit Bilingual Education for Central America, says. Centering your work experience around your own sense of well-being will, ultimately, enable you to show up as your best self.
But expect to navigate shifting priorities. “Things should happen in seasons,” Koppel says. In moments when things are tough, she advises examining—with guidance from your mentor or sponsor—whether the discomfort is just a season or if it’s a long-term issue.
“Learn small things every day about your area of interest, not just the skills it takes to do the job,” Divya Hillier, SEO Manager at Coursera, says. “Take a few minutes to look at industry news, influencers, or subject matter experts. Over time, this can help you build confidence to communicate in interviews and with your new colleagues.”
In interacting with your field in this gradual way, you can better prepare yourself to notice emerging patterns and trends, and you can broaden your perspective to extend beyond the boundaries of your current role. “You can’t work at every company in the world, but there’s nothing to stop you from critically evaluating any business, figuring out who the people are behind the business, and why they do what they do,” Hillier adds.
1. Coursera. "Women and Skills Report 2021, https://about.coursera.org/press/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Coursera-Women-and-Skills-Report-2021.pdf." Accessed February 14, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.