Daring Women: Caiman Consulting’s Marci Marra Believes Self-awareness Is Critical to Effective Leadership

She advises women pursuing leadership roles to ‘be authentic to who you are and what you stand for’

Marci Marra is a managing partner in the Seattle office of Redmond-based Caiman Consulting, a business consulting firm covering the West Coast, from Seattle to the Bay Area, with a small East Coast footprint as well. The company serves a range of clients, from startups to Fortune 500 corporations.

Marra is a specialist in rapid transformation and helps clients manage strategic projects, with a focus on planning and executing those plans to achieve goals. A native of Washington, Marra’s path to the consulting world is paved with some 25 years of experience across multiple industries, including a stint early in her career writing code for Microsoft.

Mara is focused on helping clients in the Seattle area, but she also has a broader focus within Caiman, heading up its People Initiative, which involves developing leadership and training programs designed to help the company’s consultants advance their career goals. As part of the latest Daring Woman interview, Marra offers some insights about the challenges faced by women striving to achieve leadership roles and ways to overcome them, her views on mentors and networking, and she also shares some advice for the upcoming generation of female leaders.

What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated?

Self-awareness isn’t often on the top of the leadership must-have traits list. You’re more likely to hear resilience or growth mindset, but I find self-awareness to be a huge success factor. How can you be an effective leader if you don’t know how your actions are impacting others?

If you know yourself well, then you know the impacts you have on the people around you. If you do not know yourself well, then you will not be able to build relationships. You will not be able to collaborate as well as you'd like to. You won’t be able to build trust. Nor will you be able to deal with change effectively. Self-awareness is the key: Know yourself; know how you react; know where your blind spots are; know what you don’t like doing; know what you like doing; and know how you can make adjustments in the places where you want to change.

I often see leaders who don’t understand the reactions of those around them. They can’t comprehend the lack of commitment on the part of their employees. They don’t understand the impact they are having on their teams. They don’t understand why colleagues don’t connect with them, or willingly collaborate on a project. Feedback is great tool to improve your self-awareness, but you need to be willing at accept what you hear, thank the people willing to give you feedback and take steps to change. None of will ever be perfect, but if you really know yourself, you can better control yourself and be more mindful about how you react to any given situation.

As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader?

For me personally, it was having confidence and faith in my own ability and accepting that I don’t have all the answers. Once I realized it was OK to make mistakes as long as I learned from them, my world changed. I became braver about voicing my opinion, and I was more willing to take risks. Failure wasn’t something to be frightened of any longer. It was a step in the process. I think these things are particularly hard for women. We hold ourselves to unrealistic standards, afraid to be anything but perfect, and the strive for perfection holds us back from speaking up and taking risks.

How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?

Be authentic to who you are and what you stand for and be bold and brave. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need and what you want. There are going to be times it feels uncomfortable, but if you hold to your values, work hard and be true to yourself, you will find yourself leading from whatever level in the organization you sit.

What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you?

Leadership isn’t about creating the company strategy, making the hard decision or balancing the budget. It’s about doing what is right for the people around you. Never forget the importance of establishing meaningful connections with people to create lasting and positive impressions. This bit of advice was shared with me decades ago, but still resonates and is a good reminder to focus on people first. More often than not, the rest can wait and should.

What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?

Don’t take yourself too seriously and set realistic expectation for what you will commit to and the goals you set. Don’t set standards for yourselves that we wouldn’t hold others to. Be your own biggest fan and give yourselves grace and flexibility in what you need to get done every day.

How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?

Networking is critical! Your network should be a source of ideas, support, mentors and opportunities. The key to creating a great network and expanding your contact is to be of service to other. Don’t set out to find people to help you, buy something from you, or even mentor you. If you approach networking from the perspective of doing something for others, you’ll have more meaningful interactions.

I was once given the advice to treat every interaction as a micro experience. Even if you only spend one to two minutes with a person, make sure they know you are listening, you value their time, they are your focus and leave feeling good about the experience. It may sound like an obvious thing but take a minute and think about all the times you are distracted when talking to someone. Did they feel important in the moment? Don’t we all need that? Would it have been that hard to look someone in the eye, connect on a human, personal level and be present for just a few minutes?

It takes practice, but when you know how to do this ― and whether you spend 30 seconds or an hour with someone ― you can feel that connection and create a great network for yourself. After living in the Seattle are all my life, my network is good. I’ve been able to help a few people along the way, and I’ve received wonderful advice, sponsorship and friendship, which has greatly contributed to my personal success and fulfillment.

What would you do differently in your career?

I wish I would have asked for help earlier and more often. This goes back to the strive for perfection and being afraid to show you don’t have all the answers. I struggled early on as a manager. In fact, I was a terrible manager and had to fail at it before asking for help. I was blessed to find a great mentor, who was patiently waiting for me to recognize I needed help. Had I asked for help earlier, I would have saved myself and, more importantly, my team from a lot of stress and heartache.

Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon?

Walking around Bellevue with my husband and our three rescued Jack Russell Terriers. If it’s too rainy to walk, then you’ll find me knitting or working on type of art project.

What would be the title of your autobiography?

“Leading With My Heart, Showing My Passion and Hopefully Inspiring Someone.”

We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. 

Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.

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