by Mary Welch

December 21, 2009

In Hollywood where everyone is an aspiring star, the ones who make it possess that elusive “it” factor. In business, young women wanting to take the fast lane on the leadership highway need to find that “it” factor that will shine the spotlight on them.

“So many young women starting out on their careers do all the right things and don’t get promoted, and they don’t know why. They do all the blocking and tackling, and someone else gets promoted. They want a formula,” says Reatha Clark, a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Atlanta, who closely mentors the firm’s associates.

“Of course, it’s true of young men but I mostly see it in women. There is this sense of – I don’t want to say entitlement – but expectations that if you do everything right, you still get the goal. They expect that because, even if your high school team took 12th place, you still got a trophy. You don’t get a trophy in business by showing up and doing your job,” Clark says. “You get it by being a ‘plus one.’ You do the work like everyone else, and then you add that ‘plus one’ that distinguishes you.”

Navigating your career, especially early in the game, is difficult and can involve many factors. It can be as easy as a wardrobe fix or as difficult as changing your mind-set – or finding that ‘plus one.’ If being a leader is important, then it is just as important to figure out how to become one.

Clark calls the “it” factor the “plus one.”

“It really involves not only deciding what one’s strengths are but also then marketing them to the company. It comes down to competing. Again, a lot of young women don’t like to compete; they want to be part of a collaborative team. Fine, but someone still has to be a leader. I’ve had women associates say it’s fine if someone leads a committee. Then I ask them if it’s just as fine if someone else gets promoted. That’s why you need the plus one,” she says. “Say you enjoy networking, then your plus one may be business development. It’s finding your strengths, what you’re good at, and making that into something else that no one else has. It’s your way of stepping up.”

Don Hutcheson, CEO of YellowWoods Consultants, an Atlanta-based performance improvement company, says that self-awareness is a key to being a leader.

“People talk about what it takes to be a leader but I think it’s more important to develop as a person first. There are all these MBAs and graduate school people who are technocrats. And, that’s OK, but they aren’t leaders. A leader does the right thing, and the only way for anyone to know what the right thing is, is to be self-aware and have emotional confidence,” Hutcheson says. “Understand how you are hard wired and then you will trust your instincts. Women are more intuitive and in touch with their feelings, but in the corporate world, they don’t do that as much. But when they do, they’re brilliant.”

What’s Hutcheson’s formula for becoming self-aware? “You might want to take some tests to get better insight on yourself,” he says. “And then, get out of the office, take a yoga class, get away from stimulation, and find yourself.”

Emory Mulling, chairman of the Mulling Group, Atlanta, created The Mulling Factor, an assessment tool designed to help people correct misemployment and identify their ideal boss and work environment.

“There are so many different paths that require different styles of leadership,” he says. “A young woman needs to know where she wants to go and if she can go there in that company. She needs to observe the company she’s working for and see how people are getting ahead.”

A leader-in-training needs information. “She should talk to people in her discipline and see how they got ahead,” Mulling says. “She needs to define how the leaders obtained their power and influence. I also would have a male mentor who can help her in that discipline.”

Mulling also suggests practicing one’s skills elsewhere. “Volunteer. So many nonprofits need volunteers. Working on special projects affords people the opportunity to lead and get experience outside the company.”

You can have leadership thrust upon you or you can work toward it. Either way, there are some things you must be able to do.

“Be flexible, not only with your co-workers but your career. Sometimes opportunities are presented, and they may offer more opportunities than what you think is your career path,” says Mary Beth Looney, chair of the department of art and design at Breneau University. “Learn how to take care of everyone and understand the big picture. And, that doesn’t mean being Miss Popularity. A leader makes the decisions that may cause pain but is for the greatest good. It’s not fun.”

A leader must also be willing to take the criticism, she says. “And, sometimes it’s raw and hurtful and tough. But it’s what you do with that criticism that counts.”

So many obstacles have been removed over the past 25 years, so it is easier for women to get on the leadership track, says Steve Spires, CEO of Executrack, an Atlanta professional development firm. “Years ago, young women couldn’t ask other women about leadership. That’s not an issue today. The environment is everything.”

Spires advises women to make the hard decision first. “Do you want to be a leader? Not everyone has to be. You can have a challenging career and make great money and not be a leader. But, if that’s your decision then there are some actions that will help.”

Spires suggests talking to both men and women because they will have different points of view.

“Read books and be open to learning and developing yourself,” he says. “You need to evolve yourself so you need to become more dominant but also more emphatic. You need to know how to get input from others but make the decisions yourself. Learn to be patient. Don’t think you will immediately become a leader. Those are learned skill sets.”

Ah, skill sets. There are some definite skills sets that help you become a leader.

Randy Siegel, CEO of BuildYourLeaders.com, an Ashville, N.C., leadership development company, is quick to point out how important a first impression is. “It’s like a blind date. You peek out the window and make your judgment before the person even comes to the door. It’s the same with leaders. A person’s appearance makes you want to listen to them and follow.”

Siegel says there are three very important pieces to becoming a leader. “You have to have likeability, credibility, and follow- through. People want to relate to you, understand that you know your stuff, and know that you will follow through on your word.”

Oftentimes young women are more interested in being liked than respected, Siegel says. “Dial up the authority, and don’t worry about being liked. It’s a delicate balance. Studies show that the higher the likeability factor, the lower the authority factor. But, it is not true in reverse. And, fake it until you make it.”

Clark would agree about the “nice” factor. “I’ve seen evaluations where everyone wrote how nice she was. Nice doesn’t get you promoted. Being articulate, being a good planner, being a good tactical thinker gets your promoted. I tell people if they are serious about their careers to look at their evaluations and see if that’s really how they want to be regarded. And, if it’s not, change.”

Talk to outsiders because you may not see the patterns in your career or how people get promoted in a particular company. “For instance, one woman wasn’t getting where she wanted to until someone told her that the successful leaders first took a lateral move into operations before they started climbing the ladder,” Clark says. “Until that was pointed out to her, she wasn’t going to go anywhere.”

It all goes back to the “plus one,” she says. “The real driver is to see what value you bring to the corporation. It’s really how you brand yourself. What do you want? Do you want to brand yourself as a leader? What are the steps you need to make personally to get it? What are the steps inside your corporation that will help you get there? Women who do that will be surprised how quickly their careers will accelerate.”

And, in the meantime, sometimes it’s as easy as asking for it. “Anticipate opportunities, and then ask for them,” Clark advises. “If you see an opportunity and ask for a chance to lead, it shows that you want to be a leader and that you believe in yourself. It may be as simple as saying ‘I’d want a shot.’”

About the Author

Mary Welch is Atlanta city editor of Womenetics: and a freelance writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Dawson Times, Plan Your Meeting magazine, and Atlanta Business magazine. She was editor-in-chief of Atlanta Woman magazine and editor of Business to Business and Catalyst magazines.

Article reprinted by permission of Womenetics.com