Investing in the Path to Leadership

It has been said that women have to prioritize their lives in ways that men don’t: we must choose between focusing on our careers or on our families – or attempt to do it all well and forego work-life balance. As a consequence of being stretched, many of us underinvest in ourselves.

In the midst of these priorities, the idea of doing more than what is “on the daily checklist” seems to be a luxury for many of us. We’re also, statistically speaking, poor advocates for ourselves, particularly at work and in the boardroom. Even though many women acknowledge that fact, and even though many of us know that we need to Lean In (thank you Sheryl Sandberg), changing our behavior takes more than knowing that we should. It takes assurance that there will be support for us to focus on our own professional development and feel entitled to invest in becoming stronger leaders. We need that assurance from those who judge us at work, make decisions about our career advancement, and reward us for the value and performance we bring. The trouble is . . . how many companies are aware that women may need that explicit support and assurance from the organization’s leadership – backed by action (and that part is key) – to become stronger leaders? Will your organization clear the path for you to gallop, not tiptoe, up that road to leadership?

FINCA, which I rejoined last year as Global Chief Operating Officer, has long recognized the value and power that women bring to business performance. The majority of our microentrepreneur clients are women (in some countries as high as 85% of our client base) and we have almost 40% women globally on our management teams. FINCA feels strongly that businesses with diverse representation perform better than those that don’t – on both financial and social bottom lines. FINCA knew this when it started making microloans almost 30 years ago, predominantly to women because of their proven ability to manage money and businesses, as well as their tendency to direct the fruits of their endeavors directly to the welfare of their families. And FINCA applies this knowledge internally, including supporting a tangible, cooperative effort to develop our female staff as business leaders.

In late 2013, we began by organizing an informal network of 200 women across the 25 countries where we have staff to discuss how we could drive the contribution of women at FINCA to a higher level. We have had a huge response from our women employees who are working hard each day to serve FINCA’s global client base – which includes 643,000 women microentrepreneurs in some of the most challenging environments in the world. We’ve also had tremendous support from our male colleagues who initially were perplexed as to why a group of us were gathered around a fireplace in the mountains of the Republic of Georgia back when this first started. I believe they may have suspected a plot against them, but funnily enough when they found out why we were there, they all asked how they could help. Following a long tradition of believing in women as strong business leaders, our senior advisers, from our CEO Rupert Scofield, to Rachel Robbins, one of our board members and advisers, championed our initiative to raise the profile of women within the FINCA network, both staff and clients.

Last month we launched a series of webinars created for FINCA, with the first webinars led by my good friend and an extraordinary leader of the women’s empowerment space, Samantha Collins, CEO of the Aspire Foundation. Sam has committed her life to helping women realize their potential, and she has created a network of powerful individuals across the globe who bring inspiration to each other and impact to their work. Our first Aspire webinar this October at FINCA was a great success. Seventy women staff participating from FINCA’s locations around the world – from Afghanistan to Kyrgyzstan to Zambia – listened to Sam and exchanged their own perspectives via live chat. It was great to personally interact with so many of our women colleagues who hail from such different cultures yet who all share a common desire to be inspired to lead. Exhorting my women colleagues in microfinance to take the time to participate in inspirational webinars is an easy thing to do, and we are doing much more (read about FINCA’s Women’s Initiative.) I want to encourage every woman who reads this to take the time she needs to step off the treadmill and actually invest in herself. The wise women around us have already told us that

you have to believe in and invest in yourself first if you want to thrive.

It’s up to us to actually make it happen. Fortunately, we have a whole network of women waiting to help.