9 Austin Women Leaders Share Advice for Advancing to Management

Nine women leaders share how they overcame broken rungs to advance up the corporate ladder.

Written by Olivia Arnold
Published on Nov. 11, 2022
9 Austin Women Leaders Share Advice for Advancing to Management
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The corporate ladder has a broken rung. 

Women make up nearly half the U.S. workforce but, according to a report published in October by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, they are underrepresented at all levels of leadership, beginning with the first step up to management. For every 100 men promoted from entry-level jobs to first-level managers in 2021, just 87 women overall and 82 women of color were promoted. This creates a gender and race gap in management that widens dramatically as the companies progress upward to senior leadership roles. 

The Austin women featured below largely credit their involvement with lower-level leadership opportunities — within team projects, employee resource groups and mentorship programs — with helping accelerate their career growth. This often involved stepping up to own tasks outside their day-to-day responsibilities and networking across departments. 

“A key characteristic of successful leaders is initiative,” said Lindsay Hagen, U.S. sales lead at Canva. “By taking on larger projects outside of your core job, you position yourself as an ideal candidate when the next management position opens up.” 

Empathy, curiosity and emotional intelligence were skills that the featured leaders considered critical to their success. Many emphasized the importance of talking to and observing managers they admired to develop their ideal leadership styles. 

“Individual contributors will make a smoother transition to management if they already have some ideas of what authentic leadership looks like for them,” said Stephanie Piland, senior manager of product and program operations at BlackLocus.

Built In Austin connected with women leaders at Canva, BlackLocus and seven other companies to reflect more on their careers and share insightful advice for women individual contributors looking to move into management. 

 

Lindsay Hagen
U.S. Sales Lead, Enterprise and Strategic • Canva

At Canva, a design and visual communications platform, U.S. Sales Lead Lindsay Hagen urges women individual contributors to start leading in ways big and small, long before achieving management titles (for example, by heading forecast calls or participating in interview panels). Hagen believes that a key skill for future leaders is being able to positively influence those around them. 

 

What should individual contributors do during their careers to prepare for management roles?

Don’t wait until you get the official title to start leading. Look for opportunities to lead as an individual contributor. 

A key characteristic of successful leaders is initiative. By taking on larger projects outside of your core job, you position yourself as an ideal candidate when the next management position opens up. This may look like stepping up to lead forecast calls or meetings when your manager is out or participating in interview panels to better understand the hiring process.

Solve your manager’s problems. Your relationship with your manager should go both ways. They have visibility into problems that impact the whole team, so ask good questions, listen to what’s on their mind and don’t just bring them problems; try to always bring solutions to demonstrate your initiative.

Learn from those you admire. Think of the best manager you’ve ever had. Ask yourself: What was it about them that stood out? This will help you hone in on and cultivate a management style that is in line with your values.

Make others around you better. One of my favorite managers often said, “Nail it and scale it.” I took that to heart by developing a multiplier mindset.

Don’t wait until you get the official title to start leading. Look for opportunities to lead as an individual contributor.

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at Canva.

I was one of the first individual contributors hired to build out a new sales team at Meta. Rather than just hitting my target, I focused my efforts to empower the whole team. I solved the unglamorous problems to minimize manual work, proactively shared what was working in the field and developed a point of view for how we should partner with every customer in our vertical. Once a management role opened on the team, I was asked to go for it, given that I’d already been performing many functions of the job.

I am drawn to high-growth, mission-driven companies that have a lot of impact. I continually heard from my largest clients about their challenges with visual communication during my time at Meta, and many of them were turning to Canva to solve those problems. All of these factors led me to Canva. 

When companies are growing quickly, the opportunity for growth follows. I once heard the phrase, “When you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat,” and it has always stuck with me. If you’re able to join a high-growth company that aligns with your values, career opportunities take care of themselves.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Influence. The best leaders know that the only way to achieve greatness is by working with others and helping them succeed. Influential leaders empower others, share success, show care and affect change beyond their individual scope of responsibilities. That is where true leadership lies.

Being able to influence people outside of your span of direct influence is an essential skill for management. Be the person who takes the time to understand the priorities of leadership and cross-functional teams. Learn how to build a business case that will help get what you need prioritized in a way that is a win-win for all parties involved. 

Doing the work upfront to frame your internal requests in the context of how it helps the company achieve shared objectives will make it easier for them to say yes, and your team will love that you’re removing roadblocks to set them up for success.

 

 

Ashley Sultemeier
Director, HR and Recruiting • Tecovas

At Tecovas, an American Western footwear and accessories brand, Director of HR and Recruiting Ashley Sultemeier affirms the importance of being willing to ask for help and support when needed. For women individual contributors looking to attain leadership roles, strong communication skills are essential, Sultemeier says. 

 

What should individual contributors do during their careers to prepare for management roles?

Be willing to ask for help, seek clarity and get guidance. It’s important to get comfortable asking questions and asking for support when needed. Asking for help builds connections by allowing others to share their information and resources, and it also offers new perspectives. 

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at Tecovas.

While career growth is an accumulation of many things, I was able to truly elevate my career by approaching complex problems with the mindset of digging deeper and finding root causes. Getting to the heart of problems allowed me to find long-term solutions, fix systemic problems and build trusting relationships.

Knowing the key principles of good communication has been pivotal in my growth and development, both as an individual contributor and a manager.”

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

The first skill that comes to mind is communication. Knowing the key principles of good communication has been pivotal in my growth and development, both as an individual contributor and a manager. Understanding how to effectively communicate with people at all levels has enabled me to build relationships, collaborate cross-functionally and become a better active listener. 

 

 

Alexandra Siojo
Chief Nursing Officer • Restore Hyper Wellness

For anyone hoping to advance to leadership, Alexandra Siojo stresses the importance of strong time management skills. At Restore Hyper Wellness, a retail provider of alternative health and wellness modalities where Siojo is the chief nursing officer, she encourages individual contributors to approach problems from stakeholders’ perspectives and seek out constant improvements.

 

What should individual contributors do during their careers to prepare for management roles?

We are always a work in progress. Individual contributors should always have the mentality of, “How can I improve this?” I always ask myself: How can I do this better? What can I do to make things better for my team? When you approach issues like this, it sets you up for servant leadership as you move forward in your career. From there, you can pass on ideas that eventually improve your own work process. 

As an individual contributor, you should also try to approach a problem from someone else’s shoes. While you may be solving one side of the equation, stakeholders see the other side of the issue from their lenses. This prepares you to approach things in a collaborative way and opens up your worldview. As you do this, other individual contributors will see your willingness to work with others. 

You will be surprised to see how much you learn by doing this. Knowing how the machine works as a whole helps you function in a management role.

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at Restore Hyper Wellness. 

A mentor once told me, “Don’t say no. See how we can do it. If we can’t, we can’t. If we can, then we create something new.” At that moment, things clicked for me, and it completely changed my approach and long-term thinking.

With this shift in mentality, I now do a few things. First, I share my thoughts. I am authentic in how I lead, and I always try to show empathy and a problem-solving attitude. When conversations become unproductive due to complaints, I redirect the conversation and speak with people one-on-one right after. 

Second, I share leadership responsibilities with my team and allow them to help me develop solutions and protocols. I choose my team and I trust them. That trust, I believe, helps them flourish in their management roles. 

When you are authentic as a leader, your direct reports tend to follow suit and, in turn, mirror your empathy, compassion and leadership. I truly believe that this style of management has helped me achieve high levels of satisfaction and a low turnover rate within my team.

When you are authentic as a leader, your direct reports tend to follow suit and, in turn, mirror your empathy, compassion and leadership.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Time management. You can have empathy, leadership skills and wonderful reviews, but time management is what will allow you to be successful in your career as your life changes around you. 

With good time management skills, you will be able to do most, if not all, of what you want to do. By preventing distractions and idle time from cutting into other activities, you will achieve balance and satisfaction in not just your life, but your career.

 

 

Regan Richardson
Director, U.S. and Mexico Concierge • OJO

As director of U.S. and Mexico concierge at OJO, Regan Richardson knows that team members most value their leader’s empathy in stressful situations. Richardson encourages individual contributors at the real estate technology company to seek out leadership roles on culture committees and employee resource groups to develop their skills and expand their networks. 

 

What should individual contributors do during their careers to prepare for management roles?

Individual contributors should get involved! If your company has employee resource groups or culture committees, volunteer for leadership roles within them. This allows you to network outside of your department and develop additional skills you may not gain in your current position.

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at OJO.

Earlier this year, I was asked to speak at OJO’s first Women’s Leadership Summit on the power that relationships have in your career. My employees have shared with me how I’ve impacted them, and I wanted to share what I do to foster those relationships. 

From the positive response I received during and after the summit, I believe my speech helped me stand out as a leader across the broader organization.

Every person you manage has a story or will have a situation arise that you will have to try to manage them through.”

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Empathy. Every person you manage has a story or will have a situation arise that you will have to try to manage them through. 

Having empathy allows you to step away from your manager role and understand what they need from you as a human, enabling you to show up for them during a time when work may be the last thing on their mind. Your employees will remember that more than a gift card or a pat on the back.

 

 

Sara Simmons
Head of People • BeatStars

At BeatStars, an online music marketplace, Head of People Sara Simmons advises gaining exposure to management responsibilities prior to accepting a leadership role. When Simmons transitioned from an individual contributor into management, she sought out multiple resources to best develop her leadership skills including women-focused mentorship programs, books on managing teams and a six-month emotional intelligence course.  

 

What should individual contributors do during their careers to prepare for management roles?

I recommend a multi-tiered strategy to gain exposure to what being a manager actually encompasses. It’s very common that individual contributors think that the only way to grow their career is to become a manager and, when they get there, they realize that’s not what they expected or enjoy about work. Employees may be strong individual contributors and not as strong people managers. 

When I was an individual contributor and moved into management, I sought out mentorship programs (Chicago Innovation’s Women’s Mentoring Co-Op is a great one), books (a couple favorites are “Nine Lies About Work” by Ashley Goodall and Marcus Buckingham and “Multipliers” by Liz Wiseman and George McKeown), communities, various articles, podcasts and more. Whatever I could get my hands on I wanted to absorb so I could understand what being a great manager was about. It is an enormous responsibility and privilege to be able to influence others’ development and imprint on their careers.

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at BeatStars.

I invested in my own development and mentorship by taking an emotional intelligence course with other women developing in their careers. This was a six-month course facilitated by Payal Beri from RK Empathy during which a small group of women learned together and supported one another. 

As a result, I was able to show up in my role as a coach and advisor to the C-Suite and leadership teams, armed with more tools and frameworks to have more meaningful conversations and self-awareness. This deepened the trust and relationships I had with the leadership team, which then grew into additional support for other managers and employees.

To be effective, you really have to know each of your team members deeply and pivot to their strengths and needs.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

To manage well, I recommend developing empathy and emotional intelligence. Management is not a one-size-fits-all approach. To be effective, you really have to know each of your team members deeply and pivot to their strengths and needs. 

In order to do that you have to be self-aware, self-managed and have social and relationship management skills. This includes knowing where you fall on social intuition and sensitivity to context spectrums.

 

 

Marsha Maxwell
Head of Events • Miro

At Miro, which hosts an online collaborative whiteboard platform, Head of Events Marsha Maxwell bestows some unique advice for those pursuing management: first, don’t be a jerk and, second, cultivate a belief in yourself, your goals and others. Maxwell says it’s important that individual contributors first learn the basics, through volunteering to lead team projects and listening to others.  

 

What should individual contributors do during their careers to prepare for management roles?

Be proactive and let it be known that you want to help your leaders with team-driven projects. Start small and work your way up. You have to first learn the basics of how to lead, negotiate and work with various egos and motivations toward a common purpose. 

An easy way to do this is to volunteer to lead projects in your community or workplace, which enables you to work with different personalities, all there for a common goal. You start learning how to influence people to work together. 

Leadership is not just about being at the head of the table, giving out orders and directives; it is making sure that your team is empowered to bring its skills to the forefront and acknowledged for its contributions. 

Learn how to listen. Don’t be the loudest voice or pretend to be the smartest person in the room, as no true leader is. 

Be proactive and let it be known that you want to help your leaders with team-driven projects.”

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at Miro.

I was passed over for a director position at a past company, and the especially frustrating thing was that I was never even asked if I was interested in the role. I had been a senior manager for around four years at the company, driving successful multi-million dollar global programs and dealing with senior leadership. My boss left and the role was posted externally. I kept quiet (bad move, by the way, as you have a voice and should use it), and they hired someone who I knew my skill set was equal to or even greater than. 

We came down to a critical situation that could have cost the company $500,000 if we went in the wrong direction, and we had 12 hours to make a decision. The chief marketing officer looked to my new boss for a decision, and he could not or would not offer one; so I stepped up and worked through why the CMO thought we needed to make the change. 

The CMO was concerned about the CEO not liking the installation, but I assured him that I knew what the CEO liked from working with him for a couple of years on other projects, and what we had was visually impactful.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Don’t be a jerk. Yes, I said it. You are managing people and holding their careers and money in your hands; you cannot take that lightly. People are human, and they need someone who believes in and motivates them. If you give 100 percent to making sure that your team is provided with the right training and support and learn the right skills, then they will work for you beyond expectations. 

Another skill I will call out is cultivating belief — in yourself and your goals, especially when the odds are against you. Believe in others and what they are capable of (good or bad), and believe that you can be a good manager and be a good person at the same time. You have to do the work to get there; it is not easy. 

 

 

The BlackLocus team
BlackLocus

 

Stephanie Piland
Senior Manager, Product and Program Operations • BlackLocus

An empathetic mindset is the most critical leadership skill for Stephanie Piland, a senior manager of product and program operations at BlackLocus, Home Depot’s innovation lab. When she was new as an individual contributor, Piland accelerated her career by volunteering to organize and lead a companywide mentorship program. 

 

What should individual contributors do during their careers to prepare for management roles?

Talk to the leaders around you. Ask questions. Notice what resonates with them regarding leadership styles. Notice what works and doesn’t work. These investigations can occur in a mentorship capacity, during quarterly chats or by inviting leaders to informal coffee meetups. Individual contributors will make a smoother transition to management if they already have some ideas of what authentic leadership looks like for them.

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at your BlackLocus.

Though I currently work for an enterprise organization, I think there are significant advantages to spending time in startup environments, where there is an unspoken expectation that all employees pitch in to fill responsibility gaps in the org chart. 

In my case, I was interested in creating a company-wide informal mentorship program. I was new to the team as an individual contributor and didn’t have explicit authority at the time, but coworkers started approaching me and a couple of others who were more seasoned in our careers to ask for mentoring conversations. I felt the interest of the team, and coaching and mentoring — both as a mentor and mentee — were passions of mine. 

I brought the idea of a mentorship program to the CEO and volunteered to lead the effort. Those initial conversations opened up a dialogue between myself and the CEO about what mentorship means and what matters most to the team, and it created space for him and me to share our mutual stories of how past mentors shaped us. It provided an unanticipated view into how our CEO thought about developing our business, and it raised my profile when the next promotion discussions came around.

My successes as a leader have, time and again, relied on maintaining an empathetic mindset.”

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

It is much more common to hear empathy discussed in modern workplaces, though just a few years ago it was sometimes undervalued as a soft skill and didn’t regularly take priority in review cycles or on interview panels. 

My successes as a leader have, time and again, relied on maintaining an empathetic mindset in order to better coach my team, understand business opportunities and problem-solve for our customers. 

Empathy has been long-understood by the very best leaders as an essential quality, and now we hear it spoken more explicitly at every level of business, from stakeholder meetings to talent planning.

 

 

Lilly Wilhelms
Head of Adia, U.S. • Adia

At Adia, a staffing platform for businesses, U.S. Head Lilly Wilhelms is always asking “why,” and she wants her team to demonstrate that same level of curiosity and outside-the-box thinking. When it comes to expressing and listening to individual contributors’ feedback and questions, Wilhems cautions teams to challenge their inherent biases and push back against the perception of women’s critiques as “nags.” 

 

What should individual contributors do during their careers to prepare for management roles?

Be curious. Look outside of your daily tasks to see what else is going on in the organization. One, you might find insight and interest in something you know little about; for me, it was marketing. Two, great managers have awareness about things going on outside of their department or daily tasks. No one is an island, and the more foundational knowledge you can build early on, the more likely you’ll be a top choice for promotion. 

To give an example, let’s say you’re in sales. You know that our product creates features for development and when new things are getting released, but not really too much more than that. That’s a great opportunity to ask to sit in on roadmapping, where you’ll get great insight not only into the product process but also the business priorities. 

You can then follow these priorities to the source and learn about why, for example, operations has a challenge or opportunity that’s getting prioritized, and use that knowledge in your daily tasks to better qualify leads or highlight customer pain points that your product will soon address. It primes you to be that person with expertise who applies it to the bigger picture. Golden!

The more foundational knowledge you can build early on, the more likely you’ll be a top choice for promotion.”

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at Adia.

I asked why. In a long discussion about mitigating the challenges of handling a certain customer-facing process of the platform, I asked why we were even doing this process. Apparently, it was a business standard, so I dug a little deeper — why was it a business standard? Let’s brainstorm on what it would look like if we simply didn’t do it. 

At first, it was a lot of huffing and puffing about how crazy that might be, but then, as the initial challenges melted away, the atmosphere changed into one where people were ideating about how we could fix the challenges of just not doing that process, which was a whole lot easier. 

Now, we’re the only platform that does this thing, and it’s a massive competitive edge. I became the “why” person, which led to people feeling free to come to me as a sounding board to bounce problems and think through solutions. I enjoy these conversations, and it’s an easy way to stand out.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Critical thinking. It sounds like an elementary school goal, but it’s really what I look for in people looking to move into management. I look for people who challenge, ask questions and take time to process. I think a lot of independent contributors and young managers feel pressured to give the first answer to show contribution. It’s a good way to get attached to your very first thought on the matter at hand and fall into your own assumptions rather than thinking about something from more angles.

To call something out that I’ve seen and experienced, women often demonstrate critical thinking, but then they are perceived as critical for the sake of being critical. When men do it, it’s innovative. When women do it, it’s belaboring, distracting or even nagging. 

Inherent bias is nasty and hard to pick up on, but it’s prevalent, y’all. It can encourage bright people to say nothing over time. Are your counterparts being asked to “prove” theories or ideas in the same way you are? Are you feeling compelled to do more work to prepare for a brainstorm, even though you’re an expert on the topic? Learn to recognize the signs and challenge back. 

 

 

Katie West
Head of Customer Success • RudderStack

Everything changed for Katie West, head of customer success at RudderStack, when she shifted her mindset from taking a ride in the passenger seat to driving decisions for her team. West encourages other women at the big data company, which operates a customer data platform, to trust their experience and judgment and stay grounded in their values. 

 

What should individual contributors do during their careers to prepare for management roles?

Individual contributors should work on developing their empathy and awareness for other projects and influences at their company. Developing situational awareness means you’ll have a greater capacity to understand what motivates the people who eventually work for you, and it will also improve your ability to communicate clearly and share important context to help your team get their work done. 

Building this intuition and contextual awareness becomes critical when prioritizing your work and how you communicate across other functions internally. You will gain a greater understanding of what peers and senior leaders are grappling with, and you can best position yourself to help unblock those issues while accomplishing your goals.

The other piece of advice I’d recommend for individual contributors is to start thinking about the type of manager you’d like to be and what is important to you. Identify characteristics in people you look up to and enjoy working with, and think about the qualities you wish you had seen in leaders. As you advance in your career, it will help ground you on where you derive your personal satisfaction from and create the yardstick from which you measure your impact.

Identify characteristics in people you look up to and enjoy working with, and think about the qualities you wish you had seen in leaders.

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at RudderStack. 

There wasn’t a particular moment that really accelerated my career, but there was a mindset shift that I adopted that helped change my trajectory. The best way I can describe it is like moving from a passenger to a driver mentality. 

Prior to managing teams, I heavily relied on others’ judgment and insight to direct my work. I measured my effectiveness by the volume and quality of the output that I produced. I finally reached a point in my career where I realized my true value-add wasn’t my ability to create slides, it was my judgment. 

I had been in enough experiences and seen how things played out that I could make the judgment call on how to best proceed. This was a really empowering tipping point for me — the understanding that I have a valuable perspective and should be the one making that decision. 

This ethos filtered into all aspects of my work, from how I presented my ideas in meetings, to how I directed my team, to how I pushed back on executive leads and peers. It was a turning point in my own self-confidence.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

There are so many skills you need to develop — everything from delegation and coaching to boundary setting and communication. If there is one skill I’d highlight, it’s the ability to remain grounded in what you value. 

For me, it’s very easy to get lost worrying about my career trajectory and how I’m perceived or when I’m getting promoted. At the end of the day, what matters most to me is that I’m a good leader and that people enjoy working on my team. I want people to feel like they’re getting the coaching and opportunity that I didn’t always get from my leads. 

Of course, we have standards and push ourselves to deliver great work, but I also focus heavily on long-term career development, identifying outstanding skills in my individual team members and helping them find the right paths to stand out. It’s hard to remember to focus on that, and it’s a skill I’ve had to practice, but building that leadership muscle has paid dividends in the long term.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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