How to find your voice at work (and use it), according to these female CEOs

Don't doubt the power of listening to your inner voice — these women CEOs say it's one of the secrets to their success.
by Jean Chatzky /  / Updated 
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Finding yourself doesn’t always have to involve a transformational life experience or pilgrimage à la Eat, Pray, Love. (Though pizza in Naples also never hurts.) Epiphanies can come on a random Tuesday at the office, over coffee with a mentor, or when stepping up to a podium to give your first big speech.

You can’t predict when your inner voice will drop some knowledge that changes the way you think about life— and work. When that happens, embrace it.

But don’t take my word for it. These five female CEOs all found the strength they needed when they tuned into their most authentic selves. Here’s how they did it — in their own words — and their best advice for those of us still climbing the ladder.

Eric Millette

I learned to embrace my own authenticity.

Christa Quarles, CEO of OpenTable, the world’s largest provider of online restaurant reservations

When I first started my career, I was working in a male-dominated office, and I felt that I needed to show up as a man in order to be accepted by men. I thought my voice needed to sound like a man’s voice so that I would be included. I felt that if I wasn’t included — if I backed down or complained — then I wouldn’t get ahead.

My realization wasn’t an overnight thing. It was a slower evolution that grew as I gained more power and became a leader. Leaders have to step forward and say, “This matters, and I’m going to do something about it.”

People have a sixth sense, and they can sniff it out of you aren’t being true to who you are.

Since I began bringing my whole authentic self to work, I began getting more out of my team — both with regard to respect and productivity. It made me realize that if you aren’t capable of being fully authentic, you aren’t going to succeed as a leader. People have a sixth sense, and they can sniff it out of you aren’t being true to who you are.

Her Advice: To really get to know yourself, try doing a mental review of your workday every night, especially if things have challenged you or made you uncomfortable. Ask yourself, “Was I acting in accordance with my personal values today?” Spend some time with the answer and see how it makes you feel.

I stopped letting others own my ideas.

Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder CEO of The ActOne Group, the largest woman-owned human resources solutions firm in the country

I was setting a tone for my daughter that I was only good enough to be in the back.

When my company was going after big contracts and clients, I would often give my strategies and solutions to other people on my team to deliver. I wasn’t sure how receptive some clients would be to a [message from a] black woman, and I wanted us to be successful. But about five years ago, I was working late one night, and my daughter said to me, “Mom, why do you always give [your ideas] to him to push forward? Why aren’t you owning [them] yourself?” That’s when it clicked for me, that I was setting a tone for my daughter that I was only good enough to be in the back. That’s when I decided I’d earned the right to step up. And not only did I have a right to do it, I had a responsibility to do it.

Her advice: We’ve all heard for years about the self-made man, but today the self-made person is not a truth. Nobody succeeds alone. We are all part of a much greater fabric. So it’s okay to look to others for help, but by the same token, don’t let anyone steal your power and make your story theirs.

Maureen Lippe

I was rejected from my dream job, but I didn’t let it quiet my resolve.

Maureen Lippe, founder & CEO of Lippe Taylor, a PR and communications agency

Working at Vogue was my dream job, so I went in for an interview feeling completely prepared. But I learned when I got there that you had to pass a typing test, which I failed. I told them, “I’ll be back,” and I immediately signed up for classes at a secretarial school. Six months later, I went back to Vogue able to both type and take dictation. Not only did I get the job, I learned that you can’t let every rejection ruffle your feathers. A “no” may mean that one road is blocked, but you can always take a detour and get on another path. You have to be persistent. The worst thing that you can do is internalize rejection and let it impact your feelings of self worth. Failure should teach you survival skills, not resignation.

Her advice: Look failure squarely in the eye and ask yourself, “What did I learn?” With some failures, the door is closed and you have to move on. But with others you have to keep trying. I love when people come back to interview with me a couple of years after they were turned down. Oftentimes they’ve matured, and grown into a better candidate, and we’re happy to hire them.

I learned how to speak up.

Beth Gerstein, co-founder and co-CEO of Brilliant Earth, an ethically sourced bridal and fine jewelry company

In my first few big meetings with executives — who were all older males — I was nervous. I had to force myself to speak up and contribute to the conversation in what was an intimidating environment. One day I realized that being shy and retreating was the easy thing to do — and I never wanted to be the person who took the easy way out. I found that I didn’t have to be the loudest voice at the table to share my opinion and have it taken seriously.

Her advice: Come prepared to all meetings. Know what you’re there to discuss, and if you have something to add, speak up. If needed, give yourself a pep talk before the meeting, and memorize a couple of your talking points so you’re free to make eye contact with others in the room when the opportunity arises to speak.

Photographer: Tim Ryan

I found a mentor who could guide me.

Autumn Manning, co-founder and CEO of YouEarnedIt, an Austin, TX- based human resources technology company

When I was pregnant with my first child, I worried about balancing my life as a thought leader and a thoughtful mother. I wanted to find find a mentor who had done it successfully, so I reached out to a woman who was very, very senior. I shot way above where I had any business asking for help, but if you don’t ask for what you want, you’ll never get it. I wrote to her and said, “You embody what I find to be successful both at work and at home. Could we meet once a month to discuss work and motherhood?” She said yes, and her influence has been one of the greatest in my career. She helped me learn how to be a good mom and a good leader, and not apologize for either of those things.

Her advice: Surround yourself with a diverse set of mentors and advocates. They will come in handy throughout the course of your career. Don’t be afraid to shoot higher than you should — senior executives often love sharing their wisdom with others, and they’ll respond really well to someone who asks simply, “Can I learn from you?”

With Kathryn Tuggle

TAKE YOUR CAREER TO THE NEXT LEVEL

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