Assertive Leadership: Tips for Millennial Women in Business

“To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough.”

– Edith Eva Eger

Women in business have come a long way since Katharine Graham, the first female to lead a Fortune 500 company, assumed the role of Washington Post CEO back in 1972. Here in Australia, women now comprise 42% of all employees and more than 30% of all business owner-managers. In the large Australian corporations, the story is quite different; women hold the reins at only 10% of today’s companies and 14 of our Top 200 firms.
The data suggest that it’s becoming more difficult for women to make the jump from key executive to chief executive. Macquarie Group founder Mark Johnson believes it might take another 20 years for the scales to tip again in our favour. It’s the story of many of today’s women CEOs.

Being Chameleon-in-Chief

As a founder of the Australian company WeTeachMe, I can’t say I agree with Mark. After all, today’s world and business climate look nothing like they did 20 or 30 years ago. I hope that my own story will inspire courage and pave the way for others to create businesses that will create value, especially for other women.
Before founding WeTeachMe, I had barely just arrived in Australia from Greece, to complete my masters in global media communications at The University of Melbourne. I had no background in business, and some may say I had no “business” entering into the arena of entrepreneurship. And yet, through sheer grit and desire to pursue our passion for education, my team and I grew WeTeachMe into the largest school in Australia, with thousands of classes available and even more learners enrolling every day.
Has my journey always been easy? Far from it. A lot is expected from an expat like me. Or from any woman in business, for that matter. If we want to get promoted at work, we need to appear assertive, confident, and even dominant.  We become chameleons and adjust our behaviour, according to what the situation requires, as we navigate our way from the war room to the board room.

How to Be an Assertive Leader

Below, I share some lessons I’ve learned along the way, to help other young women navigate the different challenges and demands that a leadership role requires. To be more confident and decisive but also constructive and empowering, incorporate these five habits into your daily conversations and interactions, and learn how to fine-tune your ability to adapt.

Listen for cues. To be a good leader, at times, you will need to be a psychologist, a counsellor, an expert, a sister, a mentor, a friend. At WeTeachMe, I have worked in sales and in marketing. Both roles required me to master the art of active listening and hone my ability to quickly read the room. To be aware of what a customer or stakeholder is thinking or feeling is crucial to building trust and rapport, and helps foster the creation of long-term business relationships.

Mind what you say, and also how you say it. Assertiveness doesn’t mean being overbearing or abrasive. Be direct and communicate respectfully so that the other person can focus on what you’re saying, instead of how you’re saying it. Getting the message across is half the battle.

Express ideas from your own point of view. Starting your sentences with “I” can spell a world of difference. Instead of saying “you’re not listening”, put it in your own words: “I think what you’re saying is…” Rather than instructing someone to “work this way” say “I’d like your help with…” Convey your feelings and let your empathy come through. Using a first person point of view is a natural way for you to share thoughts, ideas, or to tell a story.

Learn how to say no. In the early years of WeTeachMe, I wore multiple hats. Most days, I took on more responsibility than was physically possible. Because that’s what a founder does; you go above and beyond the call of duty. From cold calling one minute to providing customer support the next, juggling tasks requires flawless execution. As WeTeachMe grew, I had to give up some of my hats. This was not an easy lesson to learn! Today, with a better understanding of the value of focus, I pick three important things to accomplish every day and then, delegate the rest.

Maintain a professional demeanour. If you’re entering into a negotiation, present your case with confidence, without getting argumentative or emotional. Create a win-win situation for everyone, and they will see you, not as an adversary, but as a partner.

Leadership That Inspires

Being in business is not always about cut-throat competition, winning at everything, and having it all; it’s also, if not more, about creating personal connections and nurturing the relationships that get us to where we are. In and out of the workplace, we need to be effective and diplomatic, not just goal-oriented. Lead through trust and respect, not through fear. Teach, don’t micromanage. And never stop learning.
Leadership is about having the ability to influence those around us, to rally everyone around a shared vision, to inspire people, and to get those who follow us excited to come to work day after day.
Leadership means celebrating our victories. But it’s also about forgiving ourselves for our failures, because that is how we become wiser and better. Failing is the best way to learn, and a good leader never stops learning.

About the Author:

Demi Markogiannaki is one of the founders of WeTeachMe, Australia’s first trusted and multi-awarded community marketplace to list, discover, and book in-person courses. She has been included twice on the list of the most successful businesswomen under 40 in Australia, and in 2018, Demi was among the 100 women who, according to the Financial Review, have the greatest influence in the country.