Lessons from women in leadership: A celebration of International Women’s Day

Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Council Millennium Leadership Program.

For sixty years, the Atlantic Council has striven to develop leaders around the world who can build communities of action and shape the global future alongside friends and allies.

In celebration of International Women’s Day and in continuation of this mission to foster the next generation of global leaders and change agents, the Atlantic Council’s Millennium Leadership Program asked women leaders in politics, finance, energy, non-profit management, and philanthropy to highlight the importance of women in leadership roles and share the lessons they have learned over the course of their careers.

What did you learn from the women who went ahead of you in your field?

“Every generation has fought its fight and moved women further along in the commitment to reach equality to men. We have made significant strides and still have a significant way to go, which is most evident in the persistent pay gap between men and women who are doing the same job. I’m grateful for where we are today and I am invigorated for the work ahead.”

Sweta Chakraborty, 2019 Millennium Fellow; US representative for We Don’t Have Time

“Resolve. The steadfastness and faithfulness of the women who have come before me is the inspiration that I draw upon when faced with adversity.”

Catherine Kolimas, 2019 Millennium Fellow; vice president, Investment Banking, Goldman Sachs & Co.

“To set my sights on the horizon and try not to judge myself on any one day. There will always be bumps that call into question priorities and decisions. It is not always easy, but I try hard to take a long-term perspective on my progress and career.”

Kara Mangone, 2020 Millennium Fellow; managing director and chief operating officer, Sustainable Finance Group, Goldman Sachs & Co.

“There were very few senior women in my organizations—those who I did work with worked so hard and always strove for perfection. I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing, but I think they felt they had to get the same advantages and promotions as men. Simply put, most of them outperformed their male colleagues to gain a seat at the table. They also taught me to be flexible and strategic to maneuver through traditional power structures and male egos.”

Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president and director, Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, Atlantic Council

“As a Kurdish woman, I learned how women must fight for their presence, inclusion, and part of the decision-making.”

Hanar Marouf, 2020 Millennium Fellow; political and human rights officer, British Consulate General Erbil

What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career? What did you learn?

“Living a life to have no what-ifs. I chose to pursue different interests in parallel and to not necessarily stick to the playbook of being good at just one thing. This allowed me to learn a lot about myself, from my weaknesses and strengths to how I could combine it all into a wholesome career objective that would allow me to better serve and give back to a community that has done so much for me.”

Rumaitha Al Busaidi, 2019 Millennium Fellow; director of Projects and Environmental Affairs, Fisheries Development Oman

“Taking on responsibility for the global sustainability report at Goldman Sachs. At the time I had zeroed in on corporate finance and institutional-investor engagement. What felt like a hard pivot and completely out of my comfort zone became a launch point for my next chapter—a dedicated focus on climate change and sustainable finance. Be open and think big—stretching in the near term often translates to growth over the longer term.”

Kara Mangone, 2020 Millennium Fellow; managing director and chief operating officer, Sustainable Finance Group, Goldman Sachs & Co.

“Leaving the relative comfort of a US government job for the unknown in private defense industry taught me it is okay to take risks. It also taught me not to doubt my abilities and that I am capable of much more than I give myself credit for or am sometimes willing to admit.”

Nicola Johnson, 2018 Millennium Fellow; vice president, Government Affairs and Strategic Communications and Marketing, General Atomics

As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier? How did you overcome it?

“As a woman in politics, a barrier I have faced has been with society’s trust and confidence in women’s analyses when it comes to political matters. Overcoming this male-dominated version of society [happens] with charisma, leadership skills, trust in yourself and in your abilities, and a very good understanding of the political context.”

Hanar Marouf, 2020 Millennium Fellow; political and human rights officer, British Consulate General Erbil

“As a young female leader working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields without a technical background, I have experienced significant challenges in being perceived as a leader. The primary tactic I have learned is to openly display my self-trust and capabilities to my team, leadership, and clients. I found that by telling the truth and representing myself honestly, the feelings of self-doubt faded.”

Maggie Vidal, 2020 Millennium Fellow; manager of Project Management and senior project manager, BioDuro Global CMC Solutions

“The biggest barrier for me has been ensuring my voice is always heard and standing up for the people who work for me, because being both relatively young and female in a leadership position can be challenging. In the end I ultimately determined that because I am always speaking up for what is right and what I believe in I had nothing to lose, and that the benefit of doing it always outweighed the risk.”

Nicola Johnson, 2018 Millennium Fellow; vice president, Government Affairs and Strategic Communications and Marketing, General Atomics

“As a female and Asian director working in the national-security community, I have gone through many moments in which I faced the glass ceiling as a double minority, which has been the most significant barrier. Paradoxically, however, I was able to break the glass ceiling by not limiting myself to traditional stereotypes. Don’t put yourself into the boundaries that others have set up, and just be bold and adventurous.”

Miyeon Oh, director and senior fellow, Asia Security Initiative, Atlantic Council

“Structural barriers and lack of access to important informal networks with other women and men in leadership. I have overcome structural barriers with mentors and sponsors; however, it is important to understand the difference between the two. A mentor is a person who helps guide and advise someone to grow in her current position. A sponsor is a person who serves as someone’s advocate to help her move toward her next position.”

Gina E. Wood, vice president, Philanthropic Partnerships, Atlantic Council

“I have made my career in a very male-dominated field. Men primarily identify themselves with other men, and  that is the prime barrier. It is necessary to be on top of your topic and to be courageous in making yourself heard to gain respect. I share my energy but pick my fights carefully.”

Anna Wieslander, director, Northern Europe, Atlantic Council

Why is it important for women to be in leadership positions?

“Women leaders are more transformational. We tend to function as a role model for staff in our organizations. We inspire our team and spend a lot of time coaching them. We care a lot about their personal and professional development. Women leaders emphasize teamwork and authentic communication as a key to success.”

Gina E. Wood, vice president of Philanthropic Partnerships, Atlantic Council

“The world isn’t one-size-fits-all. Offering diverse representation is critical for organizations that want to thrive. Diversity comes in many forms and having women in leadership positions expands the dialogue in positive ways, especially in the male-dominated defense world. Female leaders bring different perspectives than their male counterparts, set examples for other women to follow, and help create cultures of inclusivity that benefit men and women alike.”

Nicola Johnson, 2018 Millennium Fellow; vice president, Government Affairs and Strategic Communications and Marketing, General Atomics

“We must include those who were historically disenfranchised from critical decision-making roles if we are going to support the diversity of ideas, experiences, and perspectives that we know correlate to innovation and successful problem solving. We do not have the luxury of not finding urgent solutions to the immense challenges ahead of us, like climate change and its many ripple effects, and without a diverse leadership mix we will fall short of the creative ingenuity we require.”

Sweta Chakraborty, 2019 Millennium Fellow; US representative for We Don’t Have Time

“As a result of years of navigating legacy cultures and constructs, many women have learned to identify value in non-traditional spaces and harness unique perspectives from a diverse range of talent. The world is changing at an unprecedented rate, making leadership that can cultivate talent from all backgrounds and tap into underutilized resources necessary to compete. Female leaders can give institutions that edge.”

Catherine Kolimas, 2019 Millennium Fellow; vice president, Investment Banking, Goldman Sachs & Co.

What has contributed most to your success?

“I tend to expose myself to my fears. Many times, my fears were rooted in taking on roles that I perceived as ‘manly’ or ‘powerful,’ because I did not think I could exude the strength or masculine energy that these traditionally male roles required. After repeatedly forcing myself to try them on for size, I learned to embrace my own version of what powerful and strong meant in these situations instead of looking to the traditional male model for guidance.”

Maggie Vidal, 2020 Millennium Fellow; manager of Project Management and senior project manager, BioDuro Global CMC Solutions

“Grit, work ethic, athleticism, and passion have been the main drivers thus far. While I try to celebrate the wins I have had along the way, it is the falls that truly get seared into your mind. Without the innate desire to persevere, I would not have been able to pick myself back up and try again. This resilience has also allowed me to find joy in the process, to focus less on the destination, and to relish in the lessons and wisdom gained in the present.”

Catherine Kolimas, 2019 Millennium Fellow; vice president, Investment Banking, Goldman Sachs & Co.

“Staying humble and hungry. Climate change is arguably one of the biggest societal, economic, and environmental challenges of our time and it will not be solved by any one company, government, or institution. It is a constant reminder of the importance of shared learning and acknowledging that when [we] do not have all the answers, we have to keep pushing to get there.”

Kara Mangone, 2020 Millennium Fellow; managing director and chief operating officer, the Sustainable Finance Group, Goldman Sachs & Co.

“I have built broad networks and made sure to deliver.”  

Anna Wieslander, director, Northern Europe, Atlantic Council

What would you tell your younger self, knowing all that you do now?

“Being prepared isn’t the same as being perfect.”

Ivy Lau, 2020 Millennium Fellow; global public policy and research manager, Paypal

“Take more calculated risks, learn from your failures, and apply them to your future decisions.”

Carrie Kolasky, senior vice president, Development, Atlantic Council

“Position yourself to be ready to seize opportunities—chance favors the prepared—but also be sure to forge your own path and create opportunities independent of traditional job-seeking.”

Jaclyn Levy, 2020 Millennium Fellow; director, Science and Research Policy, Infectious Diseases Society of America

“Don’t waste energy or time worrying about what you think others are saying or thinking about you and your work; but be open to feedback and to adjusting your style and methods. However, after full consideration, take only the feedback that serves you and recognize there is often bias built into feedback. Take what works for you and leave the rest.”

Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president and director, Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, Atlantic Council

“The daydreams you had during lunch breaks at high school will become a reality. Men will keep on telling you that you are not cut out for the things you [are] passionate about and that you should opt for something different, but do not give in. You will come out stronger, fiercer, and a go-getter. Life will get tough before it gets better but always trust your gut and listen to your heart.”

Rumaitha Al Busaidi, 2019 Millennium Fellow; director of Projects and Environmental Affairs, Fisheries Development Oman

“Be patient with yourself and celebrate your growth. For me, navigating motherhood alongside my career has not been easy and straightforward—in fact there have been a lot of ups and downs. But I would not have developed many of the strengths I have today had there not been those hard moments along with the exciting ones.”

Kara Mangone, 2020 Millennium Fellow; managing director and chief operating officer, the Sustainable Finance Group, Goldman Sachs & Co.

What is one piece of advice you would give to the next generation of women leaders?

“Make yourself heard. Occupy public space and take all the opportunities you get to share your knowledge, expertise, and advice. Recognize that you are, from the start, a role model for other young women.”

Anna Wieslander, director, Northern Europe, Atlantic Council

“The same advice I got when I walked into the Pentagon in my early twenties: Always sit at the table and do not be afraid to speak up!”

Nicola Johnson, 2018 Millennium Fellow; vice president, Government Affairs and Strategic Communications and Marketing, General Atomics

“Let your interests and expertise be your compass as you take on more impactful work. Create a narrative for what you are doing now and where you want to be. Flexibility, adaptation, and collaboration are important—but having a vision to guide your work is key to leadership success.”

Jaclyn Levy, 2020 Millennium Fellow; director, Science and Research Policy, Infectious Diseases Society of America

“Believe in the beauty of your dreams. Do not change your audacious goal for anybody. Find yourself mentors and allies early on and chase the goal. The world is waiting for you!”

Rumaitha Al Busaidi, 2019 Millennium Fellow; director of Projects and Environmental Affairs, Fisheries Development Oman

“We’ve passed the baton to you as the generation before had passed it to us. I hope this is the last leg of the race, with equality for women being the finish line, but if it’s not then gain the greatest lead you can before passing the baton onwards.”

Sweta Chakraborty, 2019 Millennium Fellow; US representative for We Don’t Have Time

Mary Prakas is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Millennium Leadership Program.

Will O’Brien is the special assistant to the executive vice president at the Atlantic Council.

For more information about the Atlantic Council’s work fostering the next generation of global leaders, follow @ACMillenniumLP on Twitter.

Further reading