Cindy Solomon is a nationally recognized speaker, consultant, executive coach and author of “The Courage Challenge Workbook.” She co-founded the Women’s Success Forum, the largest senior executive women’s event in the country. Solomon is a keynote speaker at the upcoming National Association of Women Business Owners 2011 Women’s Business Conference. I interviewed her about leadership, her business and the challenges facing women in the workplace today. An edited version of her answers follows.
What is your leadership philosophy?
I believe that great leadership creates great results … for customers, for investors and for employees. Having a quality product or service is a given these days. What really sets successful companies apart is the point when they decide to make developing their leaders one of their primary goals.
If you put a laser focus on creating a culture of honest, open, challenging and courageous leaders, you win in the marketplace. If you make it a priority to create a culture where employees have a meaningful role, are nurtured and challenged every day, and are provided with ongoing, clear and constructive positive feedback, you can create a company of powerful and resilient leaders.
How did you come to co-found the Women’s Success Forum?
I spent the first 10 years of my career climbing my way up the corporate ladder. In most of the roles, I was the first and only woman at that level. And I spent a great deal of my time learning how to build my skills on my own, without a mentor or someone who was my advocate. When I started my consulting career, I was shocked to find that women — both in their own businesses and certainly in corporate America — were still struggling with isolation and a lack of networking opportunities with other like-minded and “like-skilled” women. I decided to do something about it by creating a one-day leadership development event for executive women. One that would focus on skill building for women, by women.
How has social media changed the way companies should be reaching out to customers?
I think too many companies see social media as an opportunity to increase the frequency and volume of their interruptions in consumers’ lives. An added venue for cold calling. And that’s destructive. The truth is, social media can help us nurture long-term customer relationships, but it takes work. We have to be willing to take the time to become involved in our customers’ lives. To really understand their comments and reviews. To listen to — and implement — their suggestions. And give them credit when they help our companies grow. Social media gives us the chance to invite our customers to become so involved in our businesses that they feel a sense of ownership. Ownership that makes them spread the word on our behalf.
In my “Customer of the Future” speech, I talk about the power of one, how one person has the power to make or break a company. A great example is the United Breaks Guitars guy. He had a complaint that the company refused to hear. So he took his complaint to the Internet with a cleverly written song. Millions of hits later, that one YouTube song cost the airline a lot of money … millions of dollars. So it’s not so much about how we use social media to reach out to customers. It’s really about whether we’re listening to them when they reach out to us. Social media is forcing companies to be honest and treat people right. There’s an opportunity there for all of us.
How do you customize your consulting approach for your variety of clients (consumer products, education, finance, etc.)?
In my courage speech, I talk about how courage is different for everyone. What takes courage for you might be a walk in the park for me and vice versa. The same goes for my consulting work. Every client I work with is unique. They have different histories, cultures, even the language they use to talk with one another is born out of their unique set of circumstances. So I build everything from scratch based on the needs of the client. Yes, it takes more time to get to know them up front. But it makes what we do together so much more productive.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing women in the workplace today?
I think the biggest challenge is the belief that the fight is over. The myth that we have achieved equality. We’re on our way, but we’re not there yet. Look at the Fortune 500. Look at our pay levels. We need to keep pushing ahead. And we need to teach our daughters to push ahead, too.
I think there is still a perception that women are emotional leaders and more focused on people than we should be. But guess what? Right now in today’s highly competitive marketplace, meaningful relationships — with our employees, our co-workers and especially our customers — are the single most important differentiating factor we have. Women leaders who really care about people are needed more than ever right now.
What do you believe is the first step to overcoming those challenges?
Perhaps the biggest challenge we face is having the courage to be bold, to go after what we want and most importantly to ask for what we believe we deserve. I find that women in general tend to wait for someone to tap them on the shoulder to give them that promotion or pay raise that they deserve. Women wait for recognition whereas men will ask for it — loudly and repeatedly. This is where we could really learn from our male counterparts. Decide what you want for yourself — what assignment, what funding, what challenge you want — and really go after it. It takes courage, but the rewards of that action can be extraordinary!