Daring Women

True Grit

Author and entrepreneur Mikaela Kiner urges women to see it to be it when it comes to leadership

By Edited and condensed by Rob Smith October 22, 2020


A conversation Mikaela Kiner had with a prominent Seattle-area woman business executive convinced her that she needed to do whatever she could to create healthy and inclusive communication. So Kiner, an internationally certified executive coach as well as the founder and CEO of Seattle-based workplace consultancy Reverb, decided to write a book full of practical examples and checklists to help women navigate difficult issues in the workplace.

Published late last year, Female Firebrands: Stories and Techniques to Ignite Change, Take Control, and Succeed in the Workplace, is meant as a practical and actionable guide to help women advocate for themselves and others in both professional and nonprofessional settings. The book examines the stories of 13 professional women whove overcome bias and stereotypes to build their careers.

Prior to founding Reverb in 2015, Kiner spent some 15 years in HR leadership roles with major companies like Microsoft Corp., Starbucks Corp., Amazon Inc. and Redfin. Reverb, which has a staff of eight, including Kiner, works with a team of nearly three dozen consultants, facilitators and executive coaches.

LEADERSHIP: The most successful leaders are trustworthy, vulnerable and mission driven. They have plenty of grit and resilience to help their teams get through tough times. I also value transparency, kindness and humility. Arrogance (often interpreted as confidence) is hugely overrated. I have seen plenty of confident but not capable leaders fail because of an unwillingness to listen and learn. Decisiveness is good, but not when it trumps curiosity.

CHALLENGES: Its a blend of not seeing yourself as a leader. You must see it to be it. That presents a lot of hurdles. I am optimistic today because we have more women in leadership roles and more women entrepreneurs. But women too often face a double bind. When a man demonstrates leadership qualities hes praised. When a woman does, she is often told to try being less aggressive and more assertive. Women are plagued by intangible feedback like this throughout their careers. It is both gendered and unactionable.

PROMINENCE: First, we need organizations (not women) to lean into the knowledge that more women in leadership means more revenue, more profits and more innovation. The onus is on companies to seek out and develop women, beginning early in the pipeline. Government and education also have a role to play. Societal and organizational change can be slow, so I like to give women tools, too. As women, we can increase our confidence, improve our negotiation skills and ask for what were worth. One strong indicator that leads to a high degree of personal and professional success is when girls participate in sports throughout middle and high school, so keep your girls playing! Women should seek out mentors and sponsors, take advantage of training and development, invest in themselves and chart their career paths.

LESSONS LEARNED: So many! Ask for what youre worth; its probably 25% more than you think. Advocating for other women is powerful, so use your voice and position to open doors for others. If you are open and vulnerable with your team, they will do the same for you.

ADVICE: Know your values and boundaries, and make sure you choose to work with companies and leaders who are in alignment. At a leadership level, a values disconnect can be the biggest cause of dissatisfaction. Invest in yourself and the talented people around you. Dont be afraid to hire people smarter than you, or you will burn out. Work continuously to create a healthy, inclusive culture where all voices and identities are welcome and valued. Create the organization you want to be a part of.

NETWORKING: Its huge. I never networked intentionally until I started my business five years ago. But I networked unintentionally because I enjoy keeping in touch with people I respect and admire. Networking is nothing to be afraid of and it does not have to feel salesy or inauthentic. Many of the best experiences, jobs and opportunities come to you through your network. Networking today is part of my day job. I regularly attend events related to women and girls in tech, closing the pay gap and all things startup. I meet people through causes I care about serving on the board of Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) and sponsoring companies like the Female Founders Alliance. Go where your purpose takes you and youll meet others with a similar mission.

DO DIFFERENTLY: I might have planned out my own career path, something I never did formally. If I could go back, I would have explored more job rotations early on and done an international assignment sooner than I did. I would have established firm boundaries early about work hours, as well as when and how quickly I respond to email.

UNWIND: If my kids have a climbing competition or soccer game, thats where Ill be. Second to that, probably at home or in a favorite coffee shop like Empire Espresso reading a good book. I just finished Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY TITLE: Benevolence and Brute Force subtitle TBD.

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