Editor’s note: In recognition of the industry ideals reflected in the PRSA 2014 International Conference theme “Leading the Way: Fearless Future for PR,” we’ve invited industry-leading female CEOs to share their inspiration, tips and advice on how to grow, succeed and advance to the highest levels in the profession. Follow the “Leading the Way: Lessons from Female CEOs” series using the hashtag #PRLessonsInLeadership.
I have a cartoon on my desk of a group of people having a business meeting. The boss is addressing the only woman at the table. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs,”he says. “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”
Not only did this scenario happen to me early on in my career, I have met countless women in business who can say the same. While some of us can reflect back on such incidents—where our insights, efforts and even our salaries were weighted less than those of our male colleagues—from the perspective of having persevered and pushed through, many of us cannot.
Today, women account for 85 percent of the public relations industry, yet men make up 80 percent of the executive management. That is a terrible disparity. Especially when you consider that the key drivers of success in our industry—relationship building, listening, collaboration—are all areas in which women excel.
Are things improving? Yes. But not fast enough. Every woman in our industry has a responsibility to move things forward—for herself, and for other women.
That’s why I encourage the women I work with—especially the young women I mentor—to always speak up. We have the insights, instincts and skills to deliver extraordinary results for our organizations and our clients—and our perspectives are needed more than ever. Always share your thoughts and make your voice heard—even if you have to speak twice as loudly, or repeat yourself twice as often.
But don’t just be content to carve out a role for yourself and stay in it indefinitely. Seize every opportunity that arises. Find new ways to grow your skills and your career, and remember that real growth demands leaving the confines of your own personal comfort zone, so do it with determination and confidence.
When approached for a leadership position or stretch opportunity, women tend to evaluate. They’ll say, “I know I can do 60 percent of this job, but this 40 percent I’m not sure about.”In the time it took to analyze, a man has already swooped in and said yes.
Don’t equivocate! Believe in yourself and take a leap of faith. You don’t need to know everything right now. With a strong team in place, you can figure out that other 40 percent.
And lastly, be kind to other women. It is the simplest way to strengthen an organization. Yet so often, I see women treating other women with far less respect than they treat men. That ratio of men making up 80 percent of executive leadership may have something to do with it. But if we stick together, with support and solidarity, that number is bound to change.
So be assertive about your own career—where you want to take it—and work with your company to build that path. You will not only be building it for yourself, but for all the women who will follow you on it. And that is the true definition of leadership.
Karen van Bergen brings nearly 30 years of experience in marketing, communications and public affairs to her role as chief executive officer of Porter Novelli, with extensive agency- and client-side experience. For Karen, the key to successfully managing and growing large teams or large offices is a genuine investment in people. She believes passionately that when team members are constantly challenged to learn more and do their best, given opportunities to develop and empowered to look out for one another, creativity will flourish, clients will thrive and staff will “come to work whistling.” Follow her on Twitter @KarenvanBergen