Women in leadership

It’s a Sher thing had the opportunity to sit down with Helene Smuts, for an exclusive Q&A opportunity on women in leadership. Smuts has worked with leaders and teams since 2008, developing high-performance employees and teams through high-impact coaching and workshops. Smuts started her career in tourism but soon discovered her passion lay in developing people.

She has completed studies in Industrial psychology and transactional development, along with various coaching techniques. She is an Insight Discovery Licensed Practitioner. Her focus lies in supporting start-up, small to medium type entrepreneurial businesses. Along with enhancing leadership skills, people, and team development. She has clients both locally and in Europe, Canada, North America, and South America.

Q&A with Helene Smuts

Q: Why do women make better leaders?

A: It’s not necessarily that women make better leaders. There are incredible male leaders too – but rather the qualities women bring to a leadership role. In today’s world, we really need inclusive and collaborative leadership. Women naturally find it easier to show empathy. We do this through active listening and a sense of understanding when someone is struggling. Through body language, women appear to show less dominance and aggression, and give signals of “I want to hear you out”. Women also tend to be more open and vulnerable which is a fundamental ingredient to building trust. Vulnerability creates professional intimacy and starts relationships where people feel comfortable sharing certain things.

Psychological safety is very much needed in the world today. Women tend to allow an environment where people can ask questions, make mistakes, and learn from it, offer better or different ideas and challenge the status quo. Women are naturally good problem solvers, especially if you think of the role that many women hold as a wife, mother, and employee/leader. Often, at home with children, crises happen, and we need to think on our feet. This skill spills over into the workplace. Because of how quickly things can change in a family context, women need to be able to adapt; this flexibility is often useful in the workplace.

Q: Women leaders can be intimidated by other women and hold them back for fear of you surpassing them, why do you think that is, and what advice do you have to overcome that if you’re in that situation?

A: For women who feel they have worked hard to get where they are, the idea of someone else surpassing them is scary. I often see a lot of competition amongst women: Who is the toughest, the most successful, the better mother. We are supposed to support one another and be happy for each other’s success. If someone does surpass you, it is proof that you have set an amazing example and mentored someone to become bigger than you.

However, if you find yourself being held back by another woman, consider setting up an informal meeting, like a coffee date, with her. Explain that you want to have a conversation that is very difficult, and you would like her to hear you out before saying anything. Speak from the heart and say what you are experiencing, how it affects you, and what you can do to change this. Follow this by “I know this is not necessarily how you mean it, but it is how I am experiencing it” and explain how this frustrates you and that you would like to move past this. It’s also important to call out double standards – as this is the only way to change them.

Q: What makes a great leader?

A: This is a big question. A good leader is someone who can do a lot of self-reflection and is emotionally aware of their own behaviour and the impact their behaviour has on others. A good leader has the ability to lead different people, in different styles, and can adapt to the different styles of the people they are leading. If you are focused on results as a leader, but your employee is focused on thinking things through, you need to create a space to allow that person to do that, instead of just expecting immediate answers. A great leader will get to know their team, their personalities, and how they prefer to be led. Another key criterion is extreme ownership: a leader who walks the talk and owns what is theirs to own. Admit mistakes, and when there are better ways of doing things. Ask questions to the team when you don’t know the answer.

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: Success to me is when I get that internal feeling that I have assisted a business/team to become better together. This can be frustrating because success seems to always change. Once you reached the goal where you can say that you are successful, the next goal pops up.

I have started looking at the different roles I have in my life and who I want to be in each of those roles. My success driver is when I am who I set out to be. While there are ever-changing business goals, the ultimate goal is to be the person I want to be. Someone, I can I be proud of, in each of the roles I undertake.

Q: How do you manage a successful career, a relationship, and having small humans? Does something have to give or can we have it all?

A: It’s important to bust the myth that a successful career means you are a bad parent. I think we can have it all but not in 100% balance. It’s not an equal allocation of time. Identify the different areas in your life on a life wheel and rate out of 10 how happy are you in each one. This allows you to start making plans to work on each area. (see an explanation of the life wheel at https://www.linkedin.com/posts/theronhelene_leadership-entrepreneurship-culture-activity-6681106116736258048-WhSD)

My husband and I are both entrepreneurs with our own businesses and we have four-year-old twin girls. We shared where we are on the life wheel and the areas we want to focus on together. We’ve made an agreement of how much time will go to kids, each other, and work. We made agreements that the two of us always come first. If we are OK our kids will be OK. We check in with each other regarding “what do you need to focus on in your business” and we allow each other the time to do deep work at different times. We never hold work against each other, rather flag when one of us has not spent time with the kids. You can be creative in making sure you spend enough time in the roles and on the life areas you choose to focus on.

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