How to Start Envisioning Yourself as a Leader

eszter szaboEszter Szabo’s talent is helping women envision themselves as leaders.

Based in Budapest, Hungary, Szabo leads the General Electric Women’s Network, East Central Region. In fact, she started the hub in Hungary back in 2000. Within two years it became Best in Europe and in 2003 garnered a global award.

The secret to her success? Working simultaneously at three levels: First, support other women on an individual basis. Second, join (or run!) a network. Third, share best practices to help the culture progress in diversity and equal opportunity.

I was so taken by Szabo’s commitment to advancing women that I asked her to pass along what she’s learned with the rest of us. Here’s an excerpt of what she shared with my career accelerator site, WomenAdvance.com:

What drives your commitment to advancing women?

I come from a middle-class family that has had intellectual male members for many centuries. We lost everything that had been accumulated by generations during the post-1945 socialist period, when wealth was confiscated by the State. I am the first intellectual female with a career in our family. I want to prove that you can make an international career in the post-socialist CEE. I also want to help other talented women to progress. Why? Not because, as Madeleine Albright said, there is a special place in hell for those women who do not help other women. While I agree with her, I see it from another perspective. I want to contribute to the social and economic healing process of CEE, which is still in transition. It definitely would be a better place–and more competitive–if both women and men could advance in the workplace with equal opportunity.

You have a talent for inspiring, or even “selling” women on their leadership potential. How do you do that?

We do it as a group at GE’s Women’s Network–I am very proud of the fact that nearly all GE women in senior positions are actively involved in my region’s network. We work in three main ways. First, we help HR and top leadership to identify more women candidates for top positions as we strengthen a pipeline of talent. Second, we talk with our external partners about the whole problem of low representation of women in top leadership. And third, we share our network as a best practice with academia and other businesses. This way GE as a change agent stimulates the progress of the “outside world.”

What keeps women from envisioning themselves as leaders?

They see so few role models. In the entire CEE, women are rare in government and at the CEO level. Most of the women here make it to just below the executive level, and they work very hard to support a man’s success. As a result, the region loses a lot of female talent who perform below their potential. This is the reason why women need inspiration and tools to envision themselves in top positions. They also need a legal framework and institutional support. And they need a personal network for support to make it happen, because the odds are against them. Why? My personal experience tells me that, while women create and maintain a family, men only adapt and contribute to it.

What can women do to develop their leadership skills?

If your company has one, join the women’s network. Step outside your comfort zone with stretch goals. Engage your colleagues in a collaborative way to help them grow. Take credit for what you do. I have seen it so many times, even within GE: a woman works hard to put a project together and prepare a presentation, then she asks a man of the team to do the presentation. For God’s sake, who will be remembered here?

I’m very interested in how women can work together to advance each other. And that’s part of your agenda. What have you learned about the power of women to help advance each other in the workplace?

First, networks work! In addition to the GE Women’s Network, I have been active in several external mixed and female networks. Second, leaders should support their reports in their goals. For example, I am the second female on the 14-person board of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary. It would not have happened if I didn’t run for the position and if my boss, the regional CEO, didn’t support me. Third, look for global understanding. I have learned a lot from the annual study tours organized by the Female Chapter of the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum. We have been in the UK, Austria, Israel, and, most recently, Costa Rica. In each country, we study the economic system, institutions, and diversity strategies. Costa Rica drives diversity with a 50% quota. Personally, I don’t favor quotas, but they do make a difference, because they put the equal opportunity on the agenda. But this is another story . . .

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