How to Become a Leader: Leadership Resources for Female Executives

how to become a leader2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to become a leader (and links have been updated below), but you may also want to check out our latest discussion on online women’s management training

Ladies, what are your best tips on how to become a leader? Reader S has a great question about how to grow her leadership skills as a young female executive…

I’m not sure if this has been discussed before, but I’m looking for recommendations–either from you or your readers–on some good leadership skills workshops/trainings/webinars. I’ve recently been promoted to the executive team at my company. While my initial reaction was excitement, I’m now starting to feel a bit out of place at times. The promotion was given to me as a “stretch” role, which the CEO defined as a bit of a leap of faith. He’s confident that I’ll be comfortable in the role and gain the skills necessary in short time, but ever the over-achiever, I want to quell my discomfort ASAP!

I’m finding myself acting a bit more assertive and, well, tough in the negative as opposed to assertive and confident. It’s a natural “defend my right to the role” mentality whenever I’m questioned on anything. But, I know signs of a true leader are to emit the entitlement to the role through leadership and confidence.

On top of all this, I’m somewhat young (35–the youngest member of the exec team) and am a mom to 2 children (4yo and 18mo). I’m wondering if there are any good leads or advice from working women in similar situations?

Huge congrats — this sounds like a great accomplishment, and I applaud you for trying to stretch yourself to get to the next level.  I think this is a great question, because it can be difficult to grow your leadership skills. Ultimately, I think Reader S needs to focus on a) what you think you’re doing well (so you can play to your strengths), b) what you think you need to work on (so you know where to focus your reading) and c) who to ask for feedback (and when) so that you have someone else giving you some feedback also. (Pictured: Follow the leader, originally uploaded to Flickr by jtu.)

Regarding outside publications, there are a number of publications you can sign up for to learn how to become a leader.  Some of my favorites:

If you have a close mentor who’s above you, maybe ask them to sit in on a meeting you’re leading so you can get their feedback on how it’s going.  If you’re particularly close with a subordinate (even your assistant), have him or her sit in on a meeting so that you can get his or her feedback also.  Remember that about half of being a leader is in how you act — if you act competent and sure of yourself, people will respond to you in that way.

Finally, figure out if your hurdles are your own psychological ones, or if there are really external things you can/should be doing to improve your leadership style.  You may want to read a bit about The Imposter Syndrome, which women suffer from much more than men — it’s basically a feeling that you’re a complete fraud and you’ve somehow duped everyone into thinking that you’re competent and capable when REALLY you’re about to lose it all at any minute.  I remember reading about it for the first time when I was 25 and thinking, “by God, there’s a NAME for that feeling?”

I’m curious to see what the readers say here in terms of how to become a leader.  Readers, how have you grown your own leadership skills?  Do you look for/appreciate advice specific to women, or do you prefer to hear the same advice men hear?

how to become a leader | resources for women leaders


  1. If in New York, the Athena Center for Leadership has great courses.

  2. Great topic, can’t wait to read all the responses.
    Now for the off topic t-jack — Just wanted to let you know that that great Cole Haan tote that was featured on a earlier coffee break & garnered lots of admirers is on super sale at Bloomie’s right now in black for $154 (from $428), minus $50 if you enter code SURVEY, and extra $25 off if you round up to $200 with other stuff in your cart (lots of cute wallets, etc., also on sale). So at $104 (or less), post discount, seems like a great deal for anyone who needs a new tote/workbag. I am about an inch away from losing my willpower and ordering it. Hoping someone beats me to it.

  3. I’d add the Mirielle Guillarno (sp? idk) book “Women, Work, and the Art of Savoire Faire” to list. Same author as French Women Don’t Get Fat.

    I found the book to be less Lois Frankel-y/NGDGTCO and more modern and pragmatic. I’ve read NG… and didn’t think it was that applicable to my age group, for the most part. FWIW, I’m 25 and an attorney, and me and most of my friends were not raised to be pretty and quiet little girls forever, so the tips in NG were not as helpful to me. Obviously, your experience may vary!

  4. While my situtation is not entirely similar to the OP, I will look forward to the responses on this. I am suffering quite strongly from “Imposter Syndrome” in a job that I’ve had for only a month. At 24 and fresh out of grad school, I was offered a position as a program manager in a hospital. I’ve been quite overwhelmed with the responsiblities and title of the position. Despite encouraging words from upper level (not that I asked for any) I have been unable to meet the outrageous expectations that I have placed on myself.

    • Kelly–You should definitely look at the imposter syndrome stuff, I’m in a similar boat and feel the way you describe, and have been working through an imposter syndrome workbook that has really helped with it.

  5. The Center for Creative Leadership has great classes if you can get away for a week. I would recomment Gallup also, they have some really interesting tools on developing leadership skills like their Strengthfinders book/online tool (you can get at Amazon). It sounds like the original poster is changing their behavior in ways they are not fully comfortable with and I would be careful about that; you need to leverage the skills that got you to this point and not veer off in another direction while polishing anything that could be a derailer…

    • Yes, Center for Creative Leadership, Leadership Development Program. Fantastic, and I was 100% skeptical going in.

  6. You might consider some sessions with a one-on-one executive coach. I had a 3rd party coach help me prepare for my presentation to our partner admissions committee and the executive coaching experience was extremely helpful in building my confidence by providing me with a great perspective about my approach, content, tone and non-verbal communication. I will definitely work with an executive coach again as I progress to further leadership opportunities. Good luck!

  7. First of all, congratulations! I recommend the book “Climbing the Ladder in Stilettos” by Lynette Lewis. She focuses on defining your strengths and your goals in the workplace, and developing a leadership style that fits with them. Very readable and she is also a fabulous speaker.

    You’re going to do great at your new position!

  8. apt hunting... :

    I just landed a job in NYC (yay!!), and have just begun my apartment search. Can anyone recommend apartment rental sites, other than Craigslist? If possible, I’d like to avoid going through a broker who charges a fee, but I’m finding that a lot of the Craigslist postings are weird and shady. I’d prefer a 2-3 month-long sublet, which would allow me to settle in.

    • Alanna of Trebond :

      Just went through this (again) — although we paid a broker fee. Craigslist is still the best for sublets, but we used streeteasy to find a rental.

    • For short term sublets without a broker fee, Craig’s List is your best bet. But also check out the Sunday NY Times (get it on Saturday) and the Village Voice (comes out Tuesday). Good luck!

  9. Another Sarah :

    I was also not raised to be a pretty, quiet girl, so I’m interested to see what other women think about if women need different leadership skills than a man. My first thought is no: it doesn’t matter what gender you are, you can still tell a bad leader from a good one and act accordingly. I’ve also worked with both men and women leaders, and both have good and bad attributes.

    One attribute I’ve noticed in women leaders more so than men is the tendency, when delivering possibly bad news or information, to kind of dance around the issue. This is opposed to just coming out and saying, “Look, there is an issue with X. These are the issue’s effects if you don’t do anything. What do you want to do about it?” I’ve always responded better to the latter delivery method rather than the “dance around the issue,” as I perceive the dancing as disrespectful, inefficient, and akin to blowing smoke up my butt (a good leader never wants smoke up their butt, IMO). But I know not everyone agrees. So I’m excited to see what the other women leaders have to say about how to lead. Good thread!

    • Congratulations!
      As a petite, young-looking 34 y.o. in strategy, I was advised from Day 1 in my male-dominated, fact-based workplace, to “be tougher – like the other 2 tough women on the leadership team.”

      I’ve come to learn that being “tough” means different things to different leaders. You’ve got to learn your own style of leadership lest you come across as fake. The more you try to copy another style that doesn’t suit you, the less of a leader you seem to be – and oddly enough, you come across as looking very young in a less-than-complimentary way.

      My personal style I’ve realized is to admit my strengths and weaknesses upfront. I tell others what I bring to the table and admit where I need their help. People seem to find that reassuring and know I’m not out to step all over them.

      Be straight. Tell people why you’re having a meeting, sending them an email, or giving them a call. Be polite – ask them how they are doing! Enforce your deadlines. Ask direct questions. Hire an executive coach – or ask your boss to pay for one.

      It has taken me some time to grow into the role. I have been stretched. Sometimes I thought I would break. But I didn’t! And I learned and grew a lot.

  10. I’m a former Army officer and now a civilian attorney.

    The gems learned from the women above me who were some of the first in the co-ed modern army:

    1. A firm comment from a man is not and cannot be the same from a woman. If you act like men and women are the same, you will be viewed as a bitch. You then won’t be as effective because people won’t want to work with you. So practice your technique: learn how to phrase things so that they’re firm but polite. This does not mean swing to the other end of the spectrum to being a sweetheart.

    2. Watch the pitch of your voice. When women are stressed, our voices go up in pitch. Nothing makes a man’s ears shut off faster. Practice speaking slowly, consciously controlling your voice and keeping it level. Listen for cues in your tone that indicate stress.

    3. I always make an introduction with people I’m going to be working very closely with, typically admins. “I just want to tell you up front that I can be short, blunt and direct. I mean nothing by it and I certainly don’t mean to hurt your feelings. I’m just trying to get things done.” And when I do bark at someone, I apologize for it the next day. I do not apologize in a sweet tone, but a polite, professional one.

    4. Regarding your “defending your role,” tread carefully. Do not steamroll those people who’ve been doing X for 15 years because you’re above them on some piece of paper. Organizations are pyramids – you wouldn’t be on top without those on the bottom. Welcome their experience, advice and input gracefully.

    5. It is OK as a leader to say, “I don’t know.” It says you’re human. If you’ve ever seen a military basic training movie, you may see that recruits are trained to say, “I do not know but I will find out.” So when you don’t know the answer, say something like, “You know, I’m not sure, but let me ask Bob” or “let me check that report.” People can always tell when you’re BSing on things you don’t know.

    6. Don’t act like a little girl. Don’t make weak suggestions (“What do you think if we maybe did X? Just an idea.” vs. “I’d like to see us do X”), don’t type with exclamation points, don’t talk in a sweet voice.

    7. The word “entitlement” in your email worries me. A leader is put in her position through hard work and motivation. No one is entitled to lead other than royals. Always, always remember the people supporting you, the big picture, and the organization as a whole. True leaders are SERVANTS of their organization and the people they represent.

    If you’re actively managing people (as opposed to paper), Michael Abrashoff’s “It’s Your Ship” series of leadership books are good reads.

    • Great comment and good advice!

    • Former Army officer, your advice is golden!

    • I am printing your post to keep in my “personal development folder”

    • This is great advice.

      For those of you that haven’t read NGDGTCO, this is the same kind of advice that is in that. It’s worth reading even if you weren’t brought up to be “nice.” That’s a metaphor in the book.

    • lucy stone :

      This is awesome advice. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Definitely consider getting an executive coach. I wanted to get one for myself, but there were a few of us at work that could use one so our employer actually pitched in and is paying for the coaching. It is great to help me make a very similar transition that you are facing. Congratulations!

  12. Congratulations on your new job, Reader S, and before you stress too much on “becoming a leader” i suggest framing it differently. Drill down on a) what your new roles and responsibilities are and b) related to this, what your stretch goals are for this new position. for example:

    – i want to earn greater respect from my peers
    – i want to project confidence when speaking and negotiating
    – i want to manage people more effectively
    – i want to negotiate better
    – i want to make stronger management decisions
    – i want to have a better understanding of industry X or topic Y

    etc. etc. Then take your wishlist, along with an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses, and come up with a plan of attack, whether it’s burying yourself in the literature that people have suggested, finding yourself a career coach, asking one of your MBA friends for access to their career development database, getting a mentor, joining an industry group … whatever it is.

    Just as importantly, as you grow into your role and adjust to the higher profile, focus on doing what’s best for your company and its employees – your peers, subordinates, team members. That’s what leaders do, anyway.

    • Legal Mama :

      I agree with this idea of focusing on tasks & duties rather than focusing on the *identity* of being a leader. That’s so daunting — it’s like trying to be a “great mom.” Are you there yet? What about now? What about now? If you go down this road, you are going to be spending so much time worrying about whether people like you, that you’re not going to be doing your job well, AND you will be anxious all of the time.

      Now, I have been accused of being a “bitch with a capital C” before — but I treat the people I supervise very, very well. I think the key is to keep your eye on (a) what needs to be done, (b) who is best-positioned to do it (skills/availability/cost). You won’t know the answer to either question unless you know a little bit about the people there.

      I have mostly worked in smaller environments, and I approach my staff as a team. I ask people about their personal lives at least once a week (and actually listen to their answers, and ask follow up questions later); I learn their significant others’, kids’ and pets’ names (I write them down until I learn them); I make a point of inviting people to lunch from all levels of the organization; and I try to create opportunities for everyone to be master of their domain — no matter how small that domain might be. (So long as the way you want to do it does not hinder other people in the company.)

      Reader, you mentioned that you are a mom. I have found that being a mom has made me a better boss because it has forced me to become more comfortable with other people being unhappy with me. I have told my daughter “no” or made her do things she didn’t like, prompting an “I hate you!” and was genuinely hurt and upset about that. But — I didn’t change my mind because it was in her best interest. It’s the same thing with being a boss: own it — whether they think you “deserve” to be the boss or not, you’re it, and sometimes you have to make hard calls where one or both people will end up unhappy, and you have to be ok with that.

  13. Thanks everyone, good stuff!

  14. At a time when more and more ressearch is being published about women representation across the executive and director ranks, what a timely question. I have also had roles that carry enormous responsibility with serious executive facing time while at a young age. While it can be a phenomenal experience it can also make you slightly crazy and stressed out! However, I have made a point of seeking out more senior and experienced women than I to serve as mentors and sponsors to talk candidly about their paths. I would definitely recommend looking within your organization and if it is a public company, if you have any women directors, and reach out to them. Additionally, I would recommend looking at your professional associations depending on your job and industry to see what they offer from mentoring to senior roundtable discussions. Finally, look to universities and colleges. In Boston, we have several that offer both intensive courses for women, but also 1-2 day conferences focused on women and leadership. I also agree with other posters on getting an executive coach. If you find someone that meshes with your style, it will be one of the best investments you could make. Good Luck!

  15. I found the Marcus Buckingham/Gallup books on stregths and leadership to be very helpful and full of interesting research. They stress that each person has the capacity to be a leader in different ways and they focus on building the ways that come most naturally to an individual rather than trying to fit everyone into a predetermined mold of leadership.

  16. Stephanie :

    Found this frank article on imposter syndrome today, and since this post is directly linked with imposter syndrome, it may be a good resource article, even if it gets stuck in moderation: