Show Your Worth, 8 Intentional Strategies for Women to Emerge as Leaders at Work by Shelmina Abji
Women face disadvantages in the workplace, but as more women attain leadership positions, they make the road a little easier for those who come after them. Shelmina Babai Abji – a woman of color, an immigrant and a single mother – rose from poverty in Tanzania to become vice president at IBM. Her message to women: You can succeed as a leader, achieve your personal and professional goals, and help dismantle stereotypes and biases. Abji provides specific steps for attaining a leadership role with an insider’s savvy – along with loads of empathic encouragement, especially for women and minorities.
- Don’t underestimate your ability to become a leader within your workplace.
- Define what success means to you.
- Mindfully allocate your attention to gain maximum returns.
- Find work-life balance.
- Create maximal value in everything you do.
- Grow daily and continuously by going outside your comfort zone.
- Build deep, meaningful relationships to support your success and fulfillment.
- Create your leadership brand.
- When you become a leader, elevate other women.
Show Your Worth Book Summary
Don’t underestimate your ability to become a leader within your workplace.
Women face gender biases in the workplace that can undermine their confidence in themselves as aspiring leaders. You can challenge and overcome stereotypes and biases and help dismantle them. Your motivation to learn about leadership means you have the essential skills for leadership: You recognize your potential and are acting to build on it. You can learn everything else.
“Leaders are not born; instead, they grow out of a lifetime of experiences.” (former IBM senior vice president Rodney Adkins)
Shelmina Babai Abji, a woman of color, rose to the role of vice president at IBM, despite coming from an impoverished family in Tanzania and becoming a single mother at the start of her professional career. For Abji, the power of strategy and intention enabled her to progress as a leader. Applying strategic intention to all aspects of your professional life enables you to reach your goals. Take responsibility for your success, and keep learning, even when you experience setbacks. Never give up your dream of becoming a leader.
Define what success means to you.
You are responsible for your success, so start by defining what success means to you. Get other people’s perspectives, but make the final decision yourself. Only you understand your dreams. Ask yourself what you would be proud to accomplish. Make sure your definition of success aligns with your core values. Aim high, and set professional and personal goals for yourself that will make you grow.
“Aim high… You’ll never know your capabilities until you test them.”
Know the “why” behind your desire to become a leader. Is it to provide for your family? To give your children a different life from what your own? To become a role model for other women? Knowing why you pursue this goal inspires your drive and perseverance. A checklist of things you want to accomplish won’t bring you success unless they align with your “why.”
For Abji, success first meant graduating from college, so she could raise her family from poverty. When she had a degree and a job, her definition of success became home-ownership, and her “why” was so her daughter could play in the backyard. Abji continually raised her definition of success – to become a sales leader and, later, an executive – to provide for her family.
Mindfully allocate your attention to gain maximum returns.
Your attention is your most valuable asset; invest it every day to gain maximum returns. Ask whether any demand on your time is worthy of your attention. Focus on activities that offer returns for you and your organization. You won’t please everyone – but you will gain respect. You can and must learn to say no to protect your attention, keeping it available for the things you feel are worthy. Keep your priorities at the fore; stop being merely busy and become productive. Take time to recharge, so you can stay energized and maintain your productivity.
“You teach others to respect your time when you respect your time yourself.”
Abji learned the importance of prioritizing when she started as a sales representative at IBM. At first, she placed more than 50 deals on her to-do list and started working to win all of them. She was putting in 45 hours a week, but not making progress. When she asked her boss for help achieving her goals, he advised her to choose a few deals to work on – the ones most likely to contribute to her goals were those worthy of her attention. Abji started to make progress and felt excited and more in control.
Create a “Personal Success Plan”: a list of your priorities to guide how you structure your days, help you stay focused on what matters and support your work-life balance. For each of your priorities, list specific tasks and schedule them on your calendar. Schedule other tasks around them, including, for example, email, research and necessary business activities.
Find work-life balance.
You can thrive in both your work and your life outside work – even though you only have a limited amount of energy and attention – by applying intention to creating balance. Achieving balance will help you keep your stress and risk of burnout low and will boost your work productivity and engagement. To find that balance, prioritize your career and your personal life so neither takes over the other.
Abji became a single mother to two toddlers just after she received a promotion to sales leader. She felt exhausted, had difficulty paying attention at work and became short-tempered with her children. Abji had already decided to step down from her leadership position when she had a tearful breakthrough one night. She realized she could choose a more empowering way to respond to the situation.
“Having a successful work-life balance doesn’t mean having a perfect formula figured out; it means to practice the arts of fluidity, adaptability and acceptance.”
For Abji, writing down work-life balance as part of her definition of success made all the difference. Then, she applied the principles of attention to her personal life. She made it a priority to enjoy spending time with her children, and got out of the “task trap,” in which you do tasks endlessly and lose alignment with your priorities and progress. By prioritizing and structuring her time at home as she did at work – along with making healthy choices and adding helpful morning rituals – Abji regained energy, presence and calm. Find balance by believing you can achieve it, nurturing your well-being, always treating challenges as learning opportunities and setting boundaries.
Create maximal value in everything you do.
Approach every interaction as an opportunity to create value, and set an intention to maximize that value. Doing so demonstrates your value to your organization, its stakeholders and to yourself. Stop underestimating your worth. Internalize that you have competence and valuable things to say. This mind-set helps women and minorities who face stereotyping and biases resist intimidation and negative projections and perform at maximum capacity. When these individuals succeed, they help dismantle those stereotypes and biases.
“You can’t belittle yourself to greatness.”
Your ideas can make a difference, even if you don’t yet believe that. Set your fears and doubts aside, and speak up. As you contribute at a higher level, raise your profile within the organization to reap rewards. You have the power to disregard the inner chatter that undermines you and choose to act in an empowering way. This is your “Power Quotient,” which you can exercise at any time to gain power over limiting messages – even those that come from within you – and respond in ways that create value. Women often must overcome past programming that tells them to stay quiet and conform. Rewrite your programming as if debugging a computer.
Grow daily and continuously by going outside your comfort zone.
Set the intention to grow at your maximum capacity via each interaction and experience. Your growth will open new potential situations. Be willing to go outside your comfort zone. For Abji, this meant moving from her familiar hardware sales role into a completely new area: IBM’s fast-growing services business. When she started, Abji couldn’t understand her colleagues’ acronym-filled conversations and felt certain she would fail. But instead of giving up, she applied her Power Quotient, changed her thoughts and reassured herself that her discomfort meant she was growing. Have patience with yourself; take time to learn and ask for help. You can succeed in ways you hadn’t imagined and your confidence will soar.
“Growth and comfort do not coexist.” (former IBM CEO and chair Ginni Rometty)
When you encounter setbacks, put them in the context of your overall growth and remind yourself that they are temporary, and that you can learn from them. Never think of yourself as a failure, and never give up. A defeatist attitude saps your energy and can destroy your hopes for the future. Allow setbacks to build your resilience. Celebrate your successes and aim for new opportunities to push the boundaries of your comfort zone.
Build deep, meaningful relationships to support your success and fulfillment.
Your career success hinges on relationships – particularly with your boss, mentors, sponsors and peers. Your relationship with your immediate superior is the most important in your career. Be proactive – don’t depend on your boss to build the relationship. Don’t expect perfection from your boss; look for her or his strengths. How you think about your boss affects your relationship; change any negative mental model of him or her to a positive one.
A mentor can have a significant, positive effect on your career by advising, inspiring, assisting, supporting and guiding you. Even a brief mentorship can make a profound difference: Abji spent only an hour with IBM CMO Jon Iwata prior to a crucial presentation, learning important strategies for the upcoming meeting. Her successful presentation led to the IBM-Microsoft alliance and meant Abji got to keep her job. Treat these important relationships with the respect they deserve.
“Your relationship with yourself will determine the quality of all your other relationships.”
A sponsor will typically hold a position two levels above your own. Your sponsor will serve as your advocate, assisting you in gaining a promotion, moving into a new role or securing a significant assignment. For women, the need for – and difficulty of obtaining – a sponsor is often a primary obstacle to their attaining high corporate positions. Creating a sponsor relationship takes time, so start building ties well before you need that person’s assistance.
Your relationships with your peers support daily collaboration and can increase your enjoyment at work. Remember that someone who is your peer today could become your boss, mentor or sponsor in the future. No one succeeds alone, so nurture your peer relationships with intention. Maintain your integrity, build trust and apply intention to making your relationships deep and meaningful.
Create your leadership brand.
Your personal brand reflects how people think of you and affects how people will engage with, support, invest in, hire and recognize you. Creating your brand doesn’t mean manipulating how people think of you. It means becoming who you want to be and developing the self-awareness necessary to ensure the impressions you make align with that identity. Your brand can and should reflect your individual, authentic personal qualities. These characteristics will set you apart amid the fierce competition for leadership roles.
“It is only when you know your worth that you can show your worth.”
Be deliberate about developing your leadership brand. Find opportunities to demonstrate your leadership attributes and add them to your brand. Be consistent and vigilant in shaping and protecting your brand. Take care not to slip up when you feel out of sorts. Doing so might undermine your brand by creating a negative impression.
When you become a leader, elevate other women.
When you become a leader, you can and should help other women advance their careers, too. You will not only provide them with help, but enjoy feelings of success, gratitude and appreciation.
“Leadership is a responsibility, a gift and an opportunity that can create a rippling impact you’ll never be able to measure, as it can last generations.”
Serve as a role model; other women will see what you accomplish and know they can aim high, too. And people will see you as a representative of those who look like you. Shine under pressure to reflect well on others. Give women opportunities and ease their way as they follow you.
About the Author
Former vice president of IBM’s Global Microsoft Alliance Shelmina Babai Abji is a motivational speaker and angel investor.