One of the takeaways from 2020 was that women are resilient leaders, with studies that found countries with women leaders (like Germany and New Zealand) dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic more successfully than countries with male leaders. 

Having women leaders in business is just as important, and while in 2020, 87% of mid-market organisations globally had at least one woman in a senior leadership role — there’s still more work to be done. As a business, Salesforce believes in using its global platform to make changes in the world, and one of our key values is our focus on equality.

We hosted a series of talks, ‘Women in Leadership’, that shined a spotlight on women’s leadership, diversity, inclusion, and gender stereotypes. Our first discussion, led by General Manager and Senior Vice President, Petra Jenner, was with Michele Rigby Assad

Michele, an ex-CIA undercover agent and exceptional leader, shared leadership lessons she learned from her unconventional career journey. 


Stay strong in the face of gender stereotypes

As a trainee operative in the CIA, Michele and a male colleague shared a mentor. While she was expecting her training period to be challenging, she wasn’t prepared for the behaviour of her male mentor. 

He refused to make eye contact with her and only addressed her (male) peer. This led to her carrying the weight of believing she wasn’t up to the job, doubting herself. It didn’t help that at that point in the agency, women were steered toward desk jobs rather than fieldwork. 

While Michele’s experience is quite an unusual one in that not many of us will end up working for the CIA, dealing with gender stereotypes is something that so many women leaders have faced, and continue to face long after they’ve achieved success. It’s no wonder, then, that imposter syndrome is so common among women’s leadership. Michele’s recommendation? Simply, ‘fake it till you make it!'

“Every time, you get back up again,” Michele said, “until the day where you have the opportunity to show yourself and everyone else what exactly you’re bringing to the table”.


Challenge other people’s assumptions of women’s leadership

Women leaders are often faced with other people’s preconceptions, and Michele explains that while they can’t change those preconceptions, they can take control. An example of Michele successfully doing this involves a time where she interviewed an insurgent in Baghdad, one of the first times she was actually permitted to be face-to-face with sources. 

To successfully get the information from the source, Michele needed to get him to trust her. As a woman, she knew the source would have certain assumptions about her, and while she couldn’t change them, she could work out what they were, fast, and correct them.

I walked in that door knowing I was at a complete disadvantage as a female. My mentor was right, the deck was stacked against me.”

Michele Rigby Assad

But using her emotional intelligence and authenticity she was able to correct his assumptions. She greeted him in Arabic, immediately shocking him, then proceeded to share her knowledge of his work helping the CIA, and reassured him that what he was doing mattered. She got the information she needed in around five minutes, a life- and career-changing moment for her.


Challenge expectations during challenging times

Last year threw challenges to all leaders, particularly for women. The pandemic has meant we have to act quickly and decisively. Michele’s techniques for confident decision making in the moment can help leaders in business — have focus, and look at what you can do to move situations forward in a positive manner. 

As Michele discovered during her time as an undercover agent, a person’s skill set should be the only criteria for a job. Having the right person for the job, regardless of gender, can’t be underestimated. Whether it’s the CIA or the business world, having people who understand the circumstances, location, or situation is crucial. 

Challenging people’s expectations is important, as is understanding everyone on your team, to know exactly what skills you have around you. Give everyone in your team the chance to develop and grow, because not everyone will ask for the opportunities they need. 

For more inspiring leadership stories, check out our blog, Leading During Challenging Times with Bryan Habana.

Learn more about our path to gender equality and how you can take action: