Encouraging Women In Leadership To Be Themselves

By Mark Belko
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Donna L. Imhoff has some straightforward advice for women seeking to thrive in leadership.

You don’t have to be tough as nails. You don’t have to be Wonder Woman. You don’t have to show anybody who’s boss. In fact, you don’t have to be anybody but who you are.

“My belief is that you have to be yourself, and you have to really understand the whole organization [you lead],” said Ms. Imhoff, president of the Community College of Allegheny County’s North Side campus.

It’s all well and good to study different leadership styles, to read all the best sellers on effective leadership. But in the end, you have to find the style that matches your personality and strengths.

Otherwise, you might end up with the incongruity “of what you’re trying to say versus who you are, and your staff will know right away,” said Ms. Imhoff, who gave a presentation this summer on how talented women thrive.

“I think it’s important to study leadership styles, but what’s most important is to be true to yourself. At the end of the day, you have to go home and look at yourself in the mirror,” she said.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges.

First of all, there will be the inevitable comparisons, particularly if you’re succeeding someone else in the job. Ms. Imhoff’s advice is to let people “do the comparison and then shut it down or it will continue on and on and get in the way of your ability to accomplish things.”

Make sure you lead in a way that makes people feel comfortable and be clear that you have expectations for your staff and the company or division you are overseeing and that “those expectations are real.”

Then there’s the matter of pay.

The most recent study by the National Committee on Pay Equity shows that women make about 76.5 percent of what men make, Ms. Imhoff said. Just as depressing is that while the percentage of women in the workforce continues to grow, the percentage in leadership positions is still low.

The disparities are enough to make any woman angry. But if you’re looking to thrive in leadership, don’t take it out on the job, said Ms. Imhoff, who holds a doctorate in social and comparative analysis in education from the University of Pittsburgh.

Doing so is not going to help “anyone to thrive and, in fact, just allows stereotypes of women to continue, which feeds the cycle of unequal pay,” she said.

And, of course, there is the matter of discrimination. In some cases, women leaders will not be seen as the equals of their male counterparts, particularly in industries dominated by men.

Ms. Imhoff is careful to note that is not always the case. But in situations where it is, the best weapon is not to get angry but simply to let your smarts do the talking.

“As soon as you demonstrate your competency, much of this falls away,” she said.

In nearly 30 years at CCAC, where she has held a variety of positions, Ms. Imhoff has found that what has worked best for her is being herself, being honest, listening, assessing, and then making whatever decisions or changes that need to be made.

What she tells her staff is that “I will be honest with you. I won’t lie to you. If there are things I can’t talk about, I will tell you I can’t talk about it and don’t ask me to betray that.”

Her advice for young women looking to move into leadership?

“To remain true to who you are, to be prepared for obstacles to appear, because they will. But never let being a woman be the excuse you have in your head for not doing something,” she said.

Ms. Imhoff knows all too well how negative thoughts can affect advancement. She said her biggest hurdle in moving forward in her career was not so much discrimination.

“For me I think the biggest obstacle was me — the voice in my head, the self talk that they’ll never give me that job. That’s certainly a growing process I have gone through over the years,” she said.

Over time, she learned to tell herself the real truth: “Wait a minute, I am good at what I do and I have a lot to offer.”

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