How Do We Lean-In? Growing Female Economic Developers

JOIN_MEDA_MEMBERSHIP_Student (427x640)Recently, I had a chance to participate in a panel of female leaders in economic development at the International Economic Development Council’s annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas. The focus of the panel titled “Lean-In” was to examine both the challenges and the successes women economic development leaders have faced and the lessons learned.

The room was packed with 70+ aspiring, up and coming young women and four very enlightened males (thank you for being one of those Ron Kitchens).

The discussion really got my wheels spinning as to how I can lift other women and what advice would I give to myself 13 years ago when I first entered the field. Moreover, how can male leaders who want to support their female colleagues do the same?

Here are some ideas from myself and the panel of amazing women:

  • Mentor/Mentee: As a woman looking to excel, find someone who inspires you and begin a formal mentoring relationship. Most of my panelist had at least four formal mentoring relationships that helped them chart their course and provide honest feedback. For women already in leadership position, take time when approached to be a mentor to offer words of wisdom and regular advice.
  • Confidence: We all agreed that women can be their own worst enemies. Believing that you deserve to lead and demonstrating it to an external audience will take you far. I call it swagger. You have to own the room even if you are screaming on the inside. Speak up when you know the answers and have great insight. Let your voice be heard.
  • Emotions: I have admittedly cried on the job and each instance I would love to take back. Keep your emotions in check. When you are offered feedback that not be viewed as positive, don’t take it personally. You, the individual, is not being judged. Separate yourself from your performance and get stronger with each criticism or set back. A good friend of mine told me to bite the inside of my cheek if you feel emotional. It’s a great way to stop tears.
  • Dress: Dress for how you want others to perceive you. Don’t allow your dress to be a reason to discredit you or take away from your words. I personally despise pants suits and panty hose, but I regularly put them on knowing it is a necessary evil.

Now a few words of advice for those enlightened male leaders. I am forever grateful to those male leaders in our profession that contributed to my professional growth.

Here’s how they helped me:

  • Equal Treatment: Don’t treat your female leaders any different that your male leaders. They will let you know if they have commitments at home or need you to cut them slack.
  • Share: Share the lessons learned on your leadership path. I would recommend sharing stories of your professional struggles and lessons learned that will create deeper connections.
  • Feedback: Provide regular feedback on her progress, both good and bad. Providing honest conversations on a regular basis help most women chart their course to success.

I feel blessed to be female economic development leader in Michigan. When talking to women leaders from other states, it seems that team Michigan is head and shoulders above with many powerful female economic development leaders who have paved the path for newcomers over the past 20 years. They have charted the path for others to follow and now it is my turn to lift other women up and Lean In.

Authored by: Jennifer Owens, President, Lakeshore Advantage Corporation. Jennifer is a Member at Large on MEDA’s Board of Directors.

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