5 Ways Successful Women Leaders Speak up at Work, According To a Fortune 500 Director

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Adrienne Lo36
May 24, 2024 at 10:34PM UTC

My stomach flipped when I read my performance review comments a few months into a new job. “Adrienne should work on communicating more assertively,” one comment noted. The feedback was not unwarranted. I struggled to consistently voice myself; this was the outcome of an immigrant upbringing that focused primarily on work ethic and education, not on speaking out. Seeing the actual words jump off the page made me react strongly as if a fire was lit within me. 

I refused to resign myself to topping out as a mid-level employee for the remainder of my career. I became obsessed with understanding and practicing the ingredients that lead to career progression. A few years since that comment, I am now in my first director-level role at a Fortune 500 company and leading a team and function. In the first year of my new role, I successfully built my brand as a leader and influencer. I’m so glad I bet on myself and silenced that nagging voice in my head that questioned whether I was suited for leadership. Here are the key things I learned along the way.

1. Speak up with presence.

Embrace opportunities to demonstrate critical thinking and promote your point-of-view. Admittedly, I had to push myself out of my comfort zone to achieve this goal consistently, but with practice, it felt more natural. I practiced voicing myself effectively in every interaction, whether in one-on-one meetings or in front of large audiences. Sometimes I had lofty ideas to share, but oftentimes I just offered comments in response to others’ ideas, which is just as important.

Remember that what you say can be easily lost if it’s not delivered effectively. Optimize your body language and tone. I tend to study others’ communication styles to pick up on what made them effective or not effective—this, in turn, informs my style of communication.

2. Build strong relationships.

If you seek to influence someone, your chances of success are much higher if they like and trust you. Never underestimate the importance of strong relationships. In my first few months in my new role, I made sure I connected with my new colleagues on an individual level and learned about their career paths, families and interests while sharing information about myself. I never start a conversation without small talk. Nurturing strong relationships will lead you to have advocates and allies who will actively vouch for you.

3. Be aware of the needs of individuals you are seeking to influence.  

To be in the best position to influence, you need to speak to the needs of others. If you’re not sure of their needs, motivations and concerns, just ask and make sure that you’re demonstrating strong listening skills and acknowledging their feedback. Try to make clear what’s at stake for the other person. In the past, I’ve been so focused on asserting myself that at times I failed to appropriately acknowledge the needs of others—but I’ve since found a better balance.

4. Be conscious of your personal leadership style.

 Recognize that there is no one single model of leadership. You don’t have to be a raging extrovert to lead, nor do you need a formal title. For example, you might be able to influence others with your ability to rally people around a vision. Maybe you’re great at supporting and empowering others, or bringing parties together to achieve a goal. Maybe you lead with your expertise and thought leadership. Look for opportunities to capitalize on your strengths while continuing to make progress in your development areas. 

5. Advocate for yourself and aim high.

 Organizations often assess potential on whether an employee openly expresses ambition. Don’t be shy about your accomplishments and your aspirations during performance reviews, development conversations and even in job interviews. Self-advocacy was not a value I was taught as a child, but I’m becoming more comfortable with this concept. In my next development conversation with my manager, I’m planning to pronounce the words that two years ago would have been unthinkable: “My goal is to become a VP and I want to know what it will take to get to the next level.”

 We need women and minorities to speak up and be in leadership. We owe it to ourselves and society for our voices to be heard more loudly. The current energy around diversity, equity and inclusion—which is more open to different leadership styles—represents a prime opportunity for us to lean in and shatter any remaining glass ceilings. We have to convince ourselves that we belong as leaders and ensure we possess the ingredients of successful leadership.

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Adrienne Lo is a Chicago-based HR Director at a Fortune 500 company. She is completing her memoir on her immigrant experience and how she overcame an authoritarian upbringing to find her voice. She is passionate about amplifying diverse voices and is the creator of a personal branding curriculum currently used by her company's employee resource groups.

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