This year, I shared my experience as an “only” with a panel of female leaders as part of The Shift‡, NEWaukee’s speaker series centered on defining and fueling women’s career trajectories. As part of the panel, I reflected on how being an “only” shaped the leader I am today.

Over time I overcame my fear and discomfort of being the only woman in the room by focusing on ways to build my confidence. For me, that meant harnessing my skill set and reminding myself that I deserved to be in the room, regardless of the gender breakdown. I focused on the skill set that invited me into the conversion and not what made me different.

Overcoming the stress of being an ‘only’

To be successful, I knew I had to mentally and emotionally move past being the “only”—otherwise I wouldn’t be in the room much at all. Early in my career, I focused on becoming an expert my team could rely on. In time, I had become a valued member of my team and realized that I was in the room due to my skill set. As an “only”, it’s important (but difficult) to remember that you are being invited to the room because of your skills. You need to convince yourself in order to convince others.

Another key to success is forging relationships outside of meetings, both on a personal and professional level. This has helped me significantly by ensuring I have allies in the room who share some of the same values and business goals as me. Forging those relationships helps eliminate feeling “only” when you are in a meeting. It ensures a team environment where there are no outsiders. Connecting with coworkers, whether about family, hobbies or other interests, is just as important as connecting on a professional level, and the connections you make outside of the room will only strengthen your connections when you’re in the room.

Building a successful environment for an ‘only’

As a leader at UMB Fund Services, I often reflect on my own past and present challenges to make sure I am giving my team the best chance to succeed. As such, I try to identify if there is an ‘only’ in one of my meetings and try to give them a voice. Being an active contributor in meetings early in my career built my confidence and helped me feel like I belonged in the room which enabled me to get past the  “only” feeling and I have seen it do the same for many others.

Unfortunately, I have also seen employees struggle as the ‘only’ in a meeting or as part of a project. As a leader, if you witness someone struggling in this situation, it’s important to connect with them one-on-one and understand how they feel and how the problem can be resolved. Sometimes it can be brought on by a lack of confidence, but it can also be caused by more severe circumstances, such as someone from the group bullying or intimidating the individual. When faced with these circumstances, leaders need to have a zero-tolerance policy and address the issues head-on with the individual(s). By addressing these challenges early on, you can eliminate barriers for an employee’s success, ensure they feel included and significantly improve their mental and emotional health in the workplace.

As someone who has spent decades as the only woman in the room, I am fortunate to have learned valuable lessons and positively grow from my experiences as the “only”. Now as a leader of more than 200 associates, one of the leadership traits I value most is helping others build confidence and pave their own path to success – regardless of whether they are the only one of a certain gender, age, race or ethnicity.

UMB Fund Services is a national leader with decades of experience in registered and alternative investment fund servicing. Visit our website to learn how UMB Fund Services can support your firm, or contact us to be connected with a fund services team member.

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