Ten Leadership Tips for Aspiring Women

Here is a set of practical recommendations drawn from the experience of an accomplished USAID Senior Foreign Service officer.


Four out of every 10 first-time executives or executives in new positions fail or drop out within the first 18 months. In the Foreign Service, there is no one clear path to leadership success. In this article I offer my top 10 recommendations for professional advancement. While they are not only for Foreign Service women, I offer them with FS women in mind, and with the hope that sharing practical suggestions based on what I’ve learned about leadership during the course of a Foreign Service career and beyond will help set you on the path of a rewarding life and successful career.

The Foreign Service is a great place for women to become leaders. Here’s how.

1. Assert your expectations.

Leaders communicate with intent. It is important to let the system and the people in the system know what your career expectations are. Let your supervisors, their supervisors, the personnel system, the promotion boards and those around you know what you want, your career ambitions and your expectations. How else would they know? Occasionally, as a junior officer, I would ask to meet with senior officers to seek career advice. I would use those meetings to communicate my desire for a particular position, post or assignment. I also used the personal statement in the annual performance evaluation to let the system know I desired more responsibility. Once your supervisors and the system understand your expectations, your ambitions and how you think of yourself, they respond accordingly with suggestions, assignments and opportunities.

2. Know your job and exceed performance expectations.

Expressions of ambition must be accompanied by a track record of exceeding work performance expectations and progressive achievement. The higher one ascends, the more one focuses on systems alignment and intractable issues and their long-term consequences. If you aren’t crystal clear about what is and isn’t your responsibility, you may feel like you need to do everything, meet with everyone, read everything and know everything to do a good job. This is not the case. It leads inevitably to burnout.

In daily decisions about how to spend my time, whether to attend a meeting or review a document, I compared the relevance of the task to my work objectives.

Define excellence and establish performance expectations with your supervisor, and then focus on achieving those expectations. Being clear about what your job is and how you should spend your time will help you weed out the less important from the most important because, of course, everything is important. In terms of performance, I posted my three work objectives and corresponding performance measures next to my computer. This served as a reminder of my priorities. In daily decisions about how to spend my time, whether to attend a meeting or review a document, I compared the relevance of the task to my work objectives. If the task didn’t get me closer to my objectives, I didn’t give it priority.

The exception to this rule of thumb is when the task was a time-sensitive contribution to a high-priority institutional goal. In demarking these higher priority institutional goals, one is able to demonstrate the flexibility to respond to unforeseen or emergent challenges that executive leaders regularly confront. This simple method kept me focused on exceeding my work objectives.

3. Reframe the “no.”

If I listened to everyone who told me “no” in my career and my life, I probably wouldn’t have made it to the Senior Foreign Service, written and published a book, or started and led a business. People may tell you, “you aren’t ready” or “it’s not a good match” or “you lack (fill in the blank).” Everyone experiences these kinds of nos. It is easy to get discouraged, internalize the no and allow self-doubt to seep in. I’ve seen this self-doubt inhibit women more than men. You can choose to listen to people who tell you “no” or you can reframe it as one step closer to “yes.” You can view the no as a single person’s opinion. You can learn from it, adjust and move on. Whatever you do, don’t eliminate yourself from contention by not applying for the position you want. Figure out what you want to do, make a plan to do it and execute it by making tactical shifts as needed.

4. Embrace vulnerability and master emotional control.

First, vulnerability is not the same as “being emotional,” which connotes a lack of emotional control. Exhibiting controlled emotions can be an invaluable asset in demonstrating the kind of vulnerability all great leaders possess. Sociologist Brene Brown explains: “We need to feel trust to be vulnerable, and we need to be vulnerable in order to trust.” You may associate being vulnerable with showing weakness; but, in fact, it is a strength that leads to greater trust. Women tend to possess this strength. Building trust requires a level of maturity and experience that often means putting others before yourself. Trust conveys “I care about you” and “I am here for you.” Trust is the foundation of everything an effective leader does, and it is an aspect of leadership that most women are particularly good at expressing. So embrace your vulnerability, master emotional control and express it in the workplace.

It takes time to build trust because it happens in small, often intimate moments—the kind women are particularly attuned to.

5. Open a “trust account” and make daily deposits.

Establishing trust is critical to creating an ideal workplace environment. It is absolutely essential to the development of your team and to obtaining your unit’s goals. Many struggle to earn, build and maintain trust with their staff, their supervisors or with interagency collaborators. Believe me, I’ve been there. It takes time to build trust because it happens in small, often intimate moments—the kind women are particularly attuned to. Here is the thing: your performance depends on your ability to gain the confidence and respect of all with whom you must collaborate as part of your job. It is the key to building a strong high-performing team and having a comfortable work environment. You are responsible for building trust and maintaining it. You can’t skip it. Everything else relies upon it—communication, change, alignment, decisions and execution. If your foundation is shaky, then everything built on top of it is also unstable.

6. Master the process of change.

Bringing about change—which has five critical elements: new policies, new systems, new approaches, new procedures and reorganizations—will be a significant part of your job as a leader. Your efforts will be more successful if you understand how staff members react to change and the reasons for the typically high rates of failure. Change initiatives have derailed many accomplished officers, and are perhaps the most difficult part of a leader’s job. They require: (1) knowledge and understanding of the change process and the key role of trust as a catalyst for change; (2) awareness of the emotional impact of change on staff and an ability to communicate to the different emotional stages as staff members accept and implement the change. Women seem to be able do to this easily; and, (3) awareness of the five elements of successful change. Missing any one of these will leave you short of the change you hope to achieve and, therefore, short of your vision and goals.

7. Strike a work-life balance.

Balance between your work priorities and ambition and your personal life and happiness is possible. It is a matter of knowing your job, creating boundaries and executing. It sounds simple, but it is not. Women tend to be very conscientious. Conscientiousness is usually a good thing, but too much of a good thing can be detrimental. How much you work is your choice.

The key to work-life balance is an ability to prioritize and say “no” to everything else. We all know people who can’t say “no.” They may view it as a sign of weakness. They may be afraid that if they say “no” to a request, they are saying “no” to the next promotion or opportunity for advancement. Others may not even see no as an option. The people who can’t say “no” are often the people who have a disproportionate amount of work. They fall into what Marshall Goldsmith calls the “overcommitment trap”—trying to do too many things and, as a result, not doing any as well as they could.

Conscientiousness is usually a good thing, but too much of a good thing can be detrimental.

People who do a few things well are not only happier and have more balance, but they tend to get promoted sooner than the “utility infielders” who take everything that comes their way. Those who are likely to get promoted are those with the highest-quality work, not those with the largest quantity of work. Saying “no” and setting clear boundaries not only helps with establishing a balance, but it better positions you for promotions.

8. Be yourself.

There is no mold one must fit to be a good leader. Leaders come in all varieties. Pretending to be someone you aren’t, however, can be off-putting to others and exhausting for you. Leaders who act differently at work than they do at home are disingenuous and will quickly turn people off. It is taxing to stay in character and be constantly on guard for fear of exposing your weaknesses or doubts. It is a lot easier and more effective to simply be yourself. Embrace your strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, triumphs and failures. We all have them. If you accept yourself, so will your staff and your stakeholders. You will be more effective if you expose your whole self, and through this kind of vulnerability you will gain the trust so essential to being a great leader. The bottom line is, if you do nothing else, be yourself.

9. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Resilience is a byproduct of learning. It allows you to get back up and lead and perform when you have been knocked down. Everyone, without exception, gets knocked down, suffers setbacks and is disappointed as a leader. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt beaten up by the system, the people in the system or those around them at one time or another. You are not alone! Disappointments and missteps can come in many forms (a less than stellar performance evaluation, a home-life setback, or even a harsh reaction from the boss). I’ve seen women allow a cross word or blunt comment from a supervisor to visibly upset them. Most people don’t talk about these episodes because it’s risky: it can hurt your image or reputation, your promotion potential or your employability. When a misstep happens, good leaders don’t beat themselves up. Instead they have an honest conversation with themselves, acknowledge that improvement is needed and learn to do better. They don’t just bounce back; they bounce forward. It’s not that they sweep their failures or missteps under the carpet, but they have an ability to learn from mistakes and summon the self-confidence to lead again.

10. Invest in your staff.

A delayed return on investment, coupled with the relatively short tenure of Foreign Service tours, can cause staff development to fall to the bottom of your priority list. But developing “your people” is your responsibility, and without such investment truly impressive institutional results will not be achieved. In addition, perhaps the best recruiting tactic is your leadership practice, how you lead. Word gets out. If you are known as a leader who develops and invests in staff, provides opportunities for growth and allows people space to create, you will attract followers. If you consciously create a work environment that values both work-life balance and teamwork, these elements will be powerful recruitment tools. People yearn to work for good leaders. Your leadership and investment in staff will be important factors in both recruiting and retaining talent you’ll need as you rise.

Go out of your way to look for qualified women to usher up the career ladder. In all likelihood, someone helped you. I worked with women who believed in me, who gave me a chance to prove myself and guided me through stretch assignments. The best way to say thank you is to help open doors for other women. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Encourage them to advance. Share your secrets of success. Tell them how smart and strong they are. Offer them opportunities or assignments to learn and grow. And when they say thank you, ask these women to repay you by investing in other women.

There you have it. These are my top 10 recommendations for advancing your career and balancing it with a rewarding life.

Erin Soto is a former USAID Senior Foreign Service officer, who served in Latin America, Africa and Asia during a 30-year career. She is the owner of TLC Solutions and the author of Sharing Secrets: A Conversation on the Counterintuitive Nature of Executive Leadership (2014). She can be reached at erin.soto@gmail.com.