How Leaders Can Learn to Advocate for Themselves and Help Staff Do the Same

ansley-advocating as a leader April 11, 2023 By: Kendra Ansley

Becoming a CEO at a young age can be intimidating for anyone. One association leader shares how she built up her own confidence, learned how to advocate for herself, and then gave her team the tools and skills to do the same.

At 27 years old, I became executive director of a national trade association. I was a female leader serving an almost exclusively male industry with a 17-member, all-male board of directors. As a young woman with limited experience in a room full of older men used to sharing their opinions and running their own companies, I was intimidated.

Still, like many new leaders, I came in with a vision of the organization and culture I wanted to create. The association and its programming were in great shape, having bounced back well from the Great Recession, and we were building out our team to take on new programs.

My priority was valuing the team and recruiting qualified staff. It was critical to offer competitive compensation packages. I spent time talking to my board about the “we,” connecting our goals to the talent we needed to attract and asking for what the team deserved. To its credit, the board started taking steps to course-correct quickly.

As a woman and mother, I think it was easy to go to bat for everyone else, something I had been doing my entire life. While I had made my team central to discussions, early on I didn’t include myself in those same conversations.

Stuck in the back of my mind was a comment my predecessor made during our transition. She had felt undervalued for a significant portion of her tenure, and she warned me not to allow the same. I realized I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. I wasn’t comfortable sharing my own professional wins, and I didn’t want to sound full of myself. Still, I knew that if I didn’t start advocating for myself, I would continue to be undervalued.

Learning to Advocate

To start, I found a career coach to help me articulate my own wins and ask for what I deserved. She started by having me keep a success log. There I would track small and big wins and report back each time we met. When it was time to talk to my board, we would use the success log to craft talking points. I still struggled even with the proof in front of me. My coach told me that most of her female clients had the same challenge. It wasn’t only women who struggled, but it was disproportionately women.

I knew that if I didn’t start advocating for myself, I would continue to be undervalued.
I paid attention to how my staff and job applicants for our growing team behaved. I also talked my friends, also mostly young women, about their experiences. Unsurprisingly, my career coach was right. They didn’t view compensation and growth discussions as negotiations, or even really discussions. They saw these meetings as listening sessions where I would tell them what was going to happen. They never countered and rarely shared their own opinions about their value.

While I spent time and energy ensuring equity and competitive compensation, I also wanted to help my team become better advocates for themselves at the association and when they took positions elsewhere. I wanted to help them grow the way I wish I had grown before taking this position.

I identified the people on my team who never advocated for themselves, and when we would meet about compensation and growth opportunities, I asked them to come prepared to tell me what they wanted and felt they deserved. Although these discussions were often awkward and difficult, I would explain to staff that having the conversation in a safe space would help them feel comfortable enough to have these discussions in a space that was intimidating or uncomfortable in the future.

These conversations weren’t easy for me either. Staff would ask for things I couldn’t do with the resources I had. I was honest about that from the beginning, but I did my best to move in the right direction and pushed hard for what was fair. Naturally, I also had employees who had a sense of value that did not align with their work product or level of responsibility. In those cases, I had frank conversations with them. Overall, I was able to cultivate a team of wonderful people who had skills and tools that would extend far beyond their time with me.

I recently changed jobs and being able to communicate more confidently my value-add was instrumental. I still get nervous and feel a bit ill when I advocate for myself, but with practice, it isn’t debilitating or impossible. I hope that my former staff will be able to say the same for themselves.

Kendra Ansley

Kendra Ansley is managing director at the American Fraternal Alliance.