SCORE

As a woman, it can be challenging to lead as a business owner, entrepreneur, or manager. Over my career as an attorney, I have served in various roles from general counsel to head of Human Resources to the chair of the board of Leadermom and the Soul Project. Today, I serve as Chief Legal Officer/Data Protection Officer at Workhuman, a company with the mission to “empower humans to recognize each other and create a people-first culture that drives business forward.” 

I am also a single mother of three; I struggle with the balance between my home and my work life. Throughout my career, I have learned a lot about what it takes to succeed in business and in life, first as a human and second as a woman. The point is you cannot separate the two – and the only way you can truly be successful in the way we all want, the real authentic way, is to balance what we bring as women. I want to help women embrace who they are and find balance between their vulnerability and their power to become the best leader they can be.

When I first began my career, I thought that I had to be a shark. I thought the only way to be respected as a leader was to be cold, sober, and to stuff my true self down.  It never felt right to me, but it took me some time to realize that I could become a well-liked and respected leader without that mask. When I began communicating from a place of authenticity and transparency, I became a much more effective leader. 

There is no better example of this than when we started working from home.  Everyone’s lives had been upended, and many people found themselves struggling to balance having their work, their kids, their spouses, and their lives all in one place.  As a single mom of three teenagers, my day was chaotic. At any moment, just outside of my office door, I could hear screaming, knocking, or my kids running in to tell me they needed something.  Instead of hiding the chaos and stress I was feeling, I leaned into it.  I shared the crazy stories about being home with my kids, and I welcomed my team to share theirs.  What I found was; being vulnerable gave my team permission to be vulnerable with me.  They were opening up and sharing their struggles, we had laughs, and they felt seen and appreciated by me and the rest of the team. 

Women must understand that their authenticity is their key to success.  Our unique gift as women is our ability to empathize, be highly expressive, and create bonds. The ability to foster trust, empathy, community, and full expression is foundational to a highly functioning team.  But we can’t shy away from the part of our personality that can take inspired action and make things happen. 

I liken the balance of a woman at work to the balance of a parent.  As a parent, you need to be open, empathetic, and a safe place for your children to express themselves.  You want them to come to you if something is wrong or if they need help.  But you also need to balance that with tough love and the ability to discipline them.  As a leader to your children, it’s your responsibility to teach them right from wrong and position them to succeed.  The point is, you need both.  You have to own the wholeness of who you are to lead your kids, and you need it to lead a team.  If you never show your “human side” at work, your employees and colleagues won’t trust you, and they will fear coming to you with new ideas or struggles that they’re having.  Building trust and confidence through vulnerability is authentic leadership and is the first step to building a highly productive team. 

An example that comes to mind is when I was tasked to put on a large event for WorkHuman.  I am a Chief Legal and Data Protection Officer, not an event planner.  But I was excited about the task and working with a new team.  I could have walked into my first meeting with that team with hubris.  I could have shown up as an “executive” coming down from my tall tower.  Instead, I was vulnerable. I walked into that meeting and admitted that this project was out of my wheelhouse, that I was committed to making this event great, and that I needed my team’s expertise to make that happen.  The result was incredible; the team respected me because I showed up authentically, admitted what I did not know, and doubled down on my strengths.  We worked like a well-oiled machine, and the event went better than I could have ever expected.  That is the power of authenticity. When you lead authentically, you become a trusted center of influence for others to connect to on your way to the goal.

I have experienced the power of authentic female leadership both in myself and in others.  One of the best examples I have of authentic leadership happened a few years ago. My co-counsel and I were in a year-long negotiation hashing out a logo case, and we became very discouraged.  But my co-counsel was terrific. She embraced enthusiasm and became our cheerleader. She said positive things at the end of every phone call and would cheer me on after. Her positive attitude just motivated us to work harder.  It made our struggle lighter.  I really appreciated her commitment to joy; instead of letting the stress of the situation make her intense, harmful, and closed off. She was not only great at her job, but she was great at being herself as a human being. She was not putting on any type of persona, just simply being herself. And by doing so, elevated our whole team.

Part of finding this balance is developing awareness around your behaviors, and that requires presence. In the past, I have struggled to balance my roles as an executive, lawyer, and single mother of three, but I have been able to find a routine that works for me. I used to compartmentalize my life. If I was at home with my kids, I was trying to be fully present with them. When I was at work, I focused on work.  During the pandemic, these areas of my life became less segregated.  I started mixing the two: spending my lunch break with my kids, talking with them about my work.

I think bringing my whole self home has improved my relationship with them, just as bringing my entire self to work has improved my relationship with my team. Your journey towards genuine authenticity has to come from a place of self-awareness.  I make sure to spend some time each week to check-in with myself and have time to pause, think, and prioritize. This routine helps me to be the best I can be in all areas of my life.

  • Meditate
  • Write down three things you are grateful for daily
  • Listen more than you talk – the key to leading a team with authenticity is to tune into what they need.
  • Be honest with yourself – learn to catch yourself when you are lying to yourself.  Authentic leadership starts with authentically leading yourself.
  • Take a moment every hour to breathe

Finding your balance is the key to success as a woman in the business world. As a lawyer and business executive, I have learned that to be successful, you cannot separate being a human and being a woman. We must balance what we bring as women and embrace it. Women do not have to choose between acting like their male counterparts and being respected. We can be both and are far more effective when we approach our careers in all our uniqueness. The first step to achieving this balance is to center yourself around your authentic self and then show some of those pieces.  If you are a woman who is not sure how to be a leader that is well-liked, respected, and successful, start by embracing the whole of who you are.

About the Author(s)

lauren-zajac-headshot

Lauren is the Chief Legal Officer at Workhuman, the company whose mission is to help businesses create corporate cultures driven by gratitude.

Chief Legal Officer, Workhuman
leadership-skills-for-women-in-business