We Asked 5 Successful Women What It Takes to Be a Leader

Updated 04/29/19
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I recently took part in a career training workshop with Buddy Bush of JB Training Solutions. And though I went into the session hoping to gain some quick time management tricks and tools, my biggest takeaway was about shifting my attitude and my priorities. Specifically, Bush asked the group to reevaluate our daily tasks based on which ones were simply keeping us employed and which would get us promoted or contribute to our career growth in some capacity. I'd never thought about my to-do list like that. And it inspired me to revisit my own goals to work on expanding my skillset in little ways every day.

And since one of the best ways to learn is by seeking mentorship from successful, empowering women, I decided to turn to various leaders within the office here at Clique Media Group. I asked them what effective leadership looks like, how they were able to drive their careers forward, and what it takes to build and support a successful team of people. So to learn about the effective leadership skills that helped them along the way, as well as how to stay focused on the big picture while getting through your daily to-do list, read through the conversations with five inspiring female leaders below.

Alex Taylor President of Digital

Alex Taylor President of Digital
Original Graphic by Vivianna Duron

HADLEY MENDELSOHN: Have you always seen yourself as a leader?

ALEX TAYLOR: When I first started my career, I had zero interest in "management" and wanted to focus on generating ideas while getting things done. But my boss had other plans for me because she saw that I was able to rally my peers to deliver results. From there, she encouraged me to develop my leadership skills, and I am forever grateful to her for seeing my potential. This taught me a valuable lesson about leadership: Ideas are a dime a dozen, but it's the ability to inspire teams and actually execute that matters.

HM: Have you had any mentors who inspired you and showed you what a good leader looks like?

AT: Yes, I've been fortunate to work for a strong stable of leaders and managers. They helped me hone my skills and encouraged me to take on challenges that I didn't even know I was capable of handling. There's certainly something to be said about growing outside of your comfort zone. As a young leader, it's crucial to have the humility to know what you don't know and be willing to learn from people who do. 

HM: What mistakes have you made as a manager, and how have you learned from them?

AT: I've made many mistakes, but I've come to learn that each one is an opportunity for growth. Not every decision will be the "right" decision, but it's how you deal with the results that matter. I suppose the greatest lesson I've learned is that failure is inevitable—you have to fail fast, course-correct and move forward. There’s no point in looking back.

HM: Do you think it takes a certain set of qualities to be a leader, or do you believe that anyone can adapt and learn the skills required to get the job done?

AT: If you have a "growth mindset," I believe you can adapt and learn to become a better leader. Personally, I don't know that I could ever call myself a "great leader," but I'll keep trying to be better for my team. At the end of the day, my mission as a leader is to inspire what's possible for my team by providing them with clear direction, support, and feedback.

Emelie Bernette Copy Chief

Emelie Bernette Copy Chief
Original Graphic by Vivianna Duron

HM: Have you always seen yourself as a leader?

EMELIE BURNETTE: I was never one to run for student class president, no, but I loved excelling at what I cared about. Being team captain or editor in chief wasn't about leadership to me, per se. I was just passionate about what I was passionate about and wanted everyone around me to be too.

HM: Have you had any mentors who inspired you/showed you what a good leader looks like?

EB: So many wonderful people have empowered me to be confident in my work and my instincts over the years. Notably, I had the privilege of working with Elle's former online director Anne Weintraub—she actually hired me for my very first full-time copy-editing job. Level-headed and effectual, she was always my advocate, really no-nonsense, and her general fairness and as-necessary urgency taught me a lot about reasonable expectations. In our current "work/life balance" culture, that's been so valuable. Learn to set expectations early and not let others do it for you.

HM: Do you think it takes a certain set of qualities to be a leader, or do you believe that anyone can adapt and learn the skills required to get the job done?

EB: Leadership requires two skills, in my mind: personability and resilience. You don't have to be friendly, per se (although I try to be), but you have to be able to set aside work sometimes to treat your employees like the people, not machines, that they are. Resilience is essential because as hard as you work, not everyone will do the same, and you have to have the strength to take that for what it is, accept it, and know when it's time to have a tough conversation. No matter the outcome, you have to be able to push through it. Some might call that grit, too.

HM: What career advice would you give to your younger self?

EB: There's literally a best-selling book about this, but the first 90 days of anything are the most important. Once you get past the three-month mark with a new job or a new employee, changing impressions, workflows, or really anything is exponentially harder. Learn to set expectations early and not let others do it for you.

Sacha Strebe Editorial Director of MyDomaine

Sacha Strebe Editorial Director of MyDomaine
Original Graphic by Vivianna Duron

HM: Have you always seen yourself as a leader?

SACHA STREBE: No, absolutely not. I think I've always felt like I had the potential to be a strong role model, but I wasn't sure I had the confidence, the expertise, or the knowledge. I would say that my leadership skills have grown as I've grown, not only in age and confidence but in my career.

HM: Have you had a mentor who inspired you/showed you what a good leader looks like?

SS: I started out as a very hungry journalist in Australia working at a local newspaper, so I was surrounded by mostly male figureheads. There weren't any mentors to guide me, and even the women were more like men. They were all very dominating and lead by force and directives over nurturing and encouragement. You were mostly terrified of being yelled at, so you worked harder and faster, trying to make the least amount of mistakes, or you'd be accosted for it, publicly.

I was once brought into the main newsroom by the head editor at the time who proceeded to tell, no, yell at me in front of everyone that my story was awful, and it needed a complete rewrite, and to "do it again." It was humiliating and completely unnecessary. He didn't even tell me what was wrong. He just made me feel bad about it. I think I'd only been on the job for a few weeks.

I believe good leaders have strength and confidence, but their greatest ability is in bringing out the best in others, and with that, you need to be willing to listen and nurture. 

HM: What mistakes have you made as a manager and how have you learned from them?

SS: I'm not sure I would call them mistakes, but I would say that there have been moments where I have rushed decisions instead of reaching out to my team first. I think there is so much value in making the team feel part of the overall strategy and mission. Our inherent desire as humans is to feel like we're contributing to something and are a part of something that's making a difference in the world. I try to make sure our team feels like this.

HM: Do you think anyone can be a leader or do you believe that anyone can learn the skills required to get the job done?

SS: I do think anyone can be a leader, as long as that's what they want. I do agree that some people are born with a natural ability, and you can sense that energy when they walk into a room. However, not everyone needs to be a leader in that way. I think there can be various categories of leaders, and while I may not ever be a Susan Sarandon or Anna Wintour, I think the value of my leadership within our team is just as important, and I take it very seriously.

It can be tricky to find a balance between transparency and being a protector from all the office politics and the machinations of the business. I equal parts want them to be in the know about major changes, but I also need them to have a clear mind and the space they need in order to focus and create their best work. This is a fine line.

HM: What career advice would you give to your younger self?

SS: I would tell her to breathe. Don't be impatient and wish for success to come too soon. Everything happens when it's meant to, so do the best that you can, be the best that you can, and it will all happen at the right time. And I can vouch that it does. Anna Wintour is 67 now. She started at Vogue in 1988, which made her 38 when she took the editor in chief helm. It takes time to become that good, so be consistent, and work hard.

Kat Collings Editor in Chief of Who What Wear Executive Director of Editorial

Kat Collings Editor in Chief of Who What Wear Executive Director of Editorial
Original Graphic by Vivianna Duron

HM: Have you always seen yourself as a leader?

KAT COLLINGS: Growing up, I was always the leader of my friend group, and as I moved into college, I'd often take initiative with group projects. I suppose I like to know who is doing what and have a bit of control over the outcome.

HM: Have you had a mentor who inspired you/showed you what a good leader looks like?

KC: Yes, throughout my time at CMG, I've learned from many of the leaders at the company, including everything from how to be a direct communicator to how to inspire and motivate members of a team.

HM: What mistakes have you made as a manager, and how have you learned from them?

KC: I've learned that overcommunicating is better than under-communicating in terms of giving feedback to your team.

No matter your position, remember that your ideas are valuable, and you'll be more respected if you have the confidence to speak up.

HM: Do you think anyone can be a leader or do you believe that anyone can learn the skills required to get the job done? 

KC: I think it can be taught. To me, a lot of leadership is taking initiative, being an effective communicator and delegator, as well as being able to read social and emotional cues from your team. Most of these things can be learned with a bit of practice. I also think becoming a stronger leader is work that is never quite done. There are always ways to become a better advocate for your team—in that way it's exciting, as there's always room for growth. 

HM: What career advice would you give to your younger self? 

KC: Cultivate your confidence. A lot of work environments today are less traditional, and junior members of teams are encouraged to bring ideas to the table and proactively carve their own niche. No matter your position, remember that your ideas are valuable, and you'll be more respected if you have the confidence to speak up.

Danielle Melendy Director of People and Culture

Danielle Melendy Director of People and Culture
Original Graphic by Vivianna Duron

HM: Have you had any mentors who inspired you/ showed you what a good leader looks like? 

Danielle Melendy (DM): I think it's important to see positive qualities in people. So I would watch my mentors navigate situations and observe how they interact with people. And they don't necessarily need to be leaders. You can find leadership qualities in anyone and want to emulate them. I think a good leader is someone you would follow blindly into battle. Trust and autonomy are important, so being able to say even "if this isn’t right, I’ve got your back."

There's a difference between leadership and being a boss. Leaders show you what to do and bosses tell you what to do. 

HM: What mistakes have you made as a manager and how have you learned from them? 

DM: When you make mistakes, you feel like you're the only one. But that's not true. I think I've given a direction I shouldn’t have, or reacted in a way I shouldn’t have and in those situations, you should just come back and say, "I’m sorry." It's about taking accountability and not being afraid of being wrong. It helps you build a better relationship with your team, especially because most of the people around you are rooting for you. They want you to be a successful leader, or they want to lead you successfully. It's about seeing failure as experience, not defeat.

There's a difference between leadership and being a boss. Leaders show you what to do and bosses tell you what to do. 

HM: Have you always seen yourself as a leader?

DM: I've always been a leader. In high school, I was in student government. But it's not so much about being a leader and wanting to run the show. It's more about wanting to execute my ideas, and if someone has to do it, why not me?

HM: What mistakes have you made as a manager, and how have you learned from them?

DM: When you make mistakes, you feel like you're the only one. But that's not true. If I think I've given a direction I shouldn't have or reacted in a way I shouldn't have, I just come back and say, "I'm sorry." It's about taking accountability and not being afraid of being wrong. It helps you build a better relationship with your team, especially because most of the people around you are rooting for you. They want you to be a successful leader or they want to lead you successfully. It's about seeing failure as an experience, not as a defeat.

HM: Do you think it takes a certain set of qualities to be a leader, or do you believe that anyone can adapt and learn the skills required to get the job done?

DM: You have to be passionate and enthusiastic about what you're doing. If someone believes in the cause and they're passionate about why they're there and what they're doing, then they can be good leaders. Often, leaders have to be the ones to boost morale. It has to do with your passion as an employee first, and then your compassion toward your team. It's also good to be empathic and work with people at different places, while also being able to build consensus. Oh, and empowering your team to become inspired.

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