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Insights from women on becoming and being seen as leaders in technology

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Shelley Correll and Lori Mackenzie, both researchers with Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, highlights that the lack of visibility is what holds women back from reaching the high echelons in technology careers.

Having the right business skills and experience is not enough to make it to the executive table. It matters as much to be known for those skills, and that’s where women are losing out. The authors explain that visibility is a complex combination of others’ perception of one’s skills, access to challenging assignments, and association with leaders in informal networks.

Early in my career and new to this industry, I am looking to understand the tech work culture better. Though not a technologist myself, I enjoy working among inspired problem solvers, men and women, and am learning from both. But as a woman, it inspires special curiosity for me that women have to work harder than men to make visible to others their vision and ability.

As a personal study, I spoke with some of my women colleagues, who are on the leadership path and have invested time in training for more challenging roles. At turning points in their careers, these emerging leaders in engineering trained on the six-month long Silicon Valley based Platinum Exchange Women’s Leadership Program in which SAP SuccessFactors has participated since 2012. Below are excerpts from conversations with my colleagues discussing what they learned about growing and being seen as leaders.

Know your best self

Women, more than men, can get stuck on what they can do better. Focusing instead on our best self is more to our advantage. Sirisha Ayyagari, director of engineering, shared a simple exercise to understand your best self. “When women ask for feedback, they instinctively focus on what they can improve. Instead, ask for positive feedback from colleagues, friends, and family. You’ll see common themes in how people describe your strengths. That’s your best self and it’s these qualities you want to nurture and grow to be successful.”

Knowing that you can bring these strengths to any situation builds confidence. Anu Subramanian, COO for Engineering and Operations, explained, “I always felt that I needed the right environment before I did something. I soon realized that there is no such thing. I now ask myself what do I have to lose. Either I have what it takes, or I will learn by doing. That introspection and confidence helps me create the right value proposition.”

This focus on one’s best self has also influenced the way these women manage their teams. Anu said, “This outlook forced me to encourage that behavior in other people as well. It’s difficult for people to get out of their comfort zone and express ambition. My role as a leader is to create a safe environment for people to stretch themselves.”

For Christina Zhang, director of engineering program management, this focus on the positive underlines her management style. She said, “As a leader, you need to think of things in a positive way. This helped me to become a better team leader.”

You too need a board of directors

Like any business, you need your own personal board of directors who understand where you want to go and what motivates you. In an exercise on the Platinum Exchange program, participants were asked to map their potential mentors and sponsors in the organization. This was the first step to encourage them to engage with people who may not be in their immediate network. Christina shared how experiences such as this one influenced her. “Earlier, my focus was only on doing my job well. I concentrated on detailed execution, but lacked the bigger picture. This training changed my mindset. I realize the value of building one-on-one relationships, and of taking time to have conversations with leaders and my peers to understand what matters to the team and organization and where we need to invest our efforts.”

Janet Peterson, vice president of platform engineering, reiterates this view, “Understanding what’s happening in the organization is important. You’ve got to go beyond your team and talk with people in other areas to really build a full picture.”

These leaders have also benefitted from working with mentors to understand and articulate their goals. “There are lots of very smart people in my organization. To find the right mentors, I look for traits that I personally value and for strengths that I want to develop,” said Sirisha.

Many of my colleagues were exposed to the benefits of mentoring through professional coaching on the Platinum Exchange program. Kirti Schoener, director of engineering, shared, “As a manager, I would focus on my team’s goals, but I did not take time to define my own career objectives. Coaching helped me do that. As women, we are so focused on completing our day-to-day tasks, we often forget about what we want for ourselves in the long-term.” Kirti has recently moved to a stretch assignment as a strategy fellow with, SAP’s new startup incubator.

Julie Ferrier, senior program manager for release management and BizOps, had a similarly reflective experience with coaching. “It helped me recognize why and how I was sabotaging myself unintentionally. Once you can see those patterns and behaviors, you can change them. For example, women tend to ask questions in meetings even when they are sure of something. Being assertive where needed by using statements instead of questions may seem like a simple change, but it makes a big difference in how confident you feel and are perceived to be.”

Be aware of and act on differences

As Julie shared, self-awareness in the workspace is the first, but a huge, step toward making positive changes. Janet explained that the Platinum Exchange program equipped her with the resources and made her more comfortable about having conversations with peers, men and women, about why investing in gender parity is not just fair but also good for the company and the products we build. Anu, whose team leads internationalization of SAP SuccessFactors solutions, sees greater awareness of gender and cultural differences impact products everyday.

This awareness is not only helping my colleagues navigate their own careers better, but also enables them to contribute more effectively as mentors to others, as innovators shaping our products, and as leaders defining their team and organization culture.

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