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Overcoming Hurdles: A Q&A with Jennifer McCollum

The Linkage CEO has spent nearly three decades helping leaders become the best they can be, most notably by helping women climb the ranks.

Jennifer McCollum says that in 2018, she was hesitant to accept the CEO role at Linkage, a leadership development firm committed to advancing women and accelerating inclusion in organizations. It wasn’t as if McCollum lacked the necessary skills and experience. Quite the contrary: She had spent decades in high-ranking positions in talent development and strategic organization, working for companies such as Korn Ferry and the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), which is now part of Gartner. She ran CEB’s Leadership Academies business, which developed more than 30,000 professionals in 2,100 companies throughout 50 countries and drove revenue at a 97 percent combined annual growth rate over the five-year period that ended in 2015.

Like many women, however, McCollum’s inner critic was loud. Her mind was focused on how she had never led an organization before and how it might be better if she held the No. 2 spot first, so she could be properly prepared. Plus, she wondered how she could be the kind of mother she envisioned with such a demanding job. But she eventually overcame her concerns to successfully lead Linkage, which SHRM acquired last year. 

In her new book, In Her Own Voice: A Woman’s Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership (Matt Holt, 2023), McCollum describes how women can conquer the obstacles that are holding them back and shares examples from her own journey as well as years of Linkage research.

What are the major hurdles that keep women from leadership roles, and how can they overcome them?

One is proving your value. It’s the tendency for women to put their heads down and work harder and say yes to more, hoping that people will notice. It’s one of the reasons that women become very burnt out. We’re trying to prove ourselves all the time. The way to overcome it is to get really clear about the work that aligns with your strengths and passion and delegate or say no to work that doesn’t align. Women have a harder time saying no.

Another is clarity. When I ask a woman, “What is it that you want?” most of the time women will describe it in the context of what’s good for the team, the organization or her family. She doesn’t put herself in the picture. Clarity is about being able to articulate what it is you want with your career in the context of your life. 

The third one is making the ask, which is difficult for many women because they tend to ask for what they think they can get or what they feel like they deserve, which is often a lot lower than what men feel like they can get and what they deserve. It’s about putting yourself out there with confidence, with the business case and the data. Ask for what you really want, and not the watered-down ­version of what you think you’ll get.

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How did you overcome the obstacles you talked about? 

Two things account for my ­career success. The first would be self-awareness and development. I’ve had a lot of practice creating clarity about what I want with my life and setting the intention and actions to get there. I also realized that I physically couldn’t continue to try and prove my value without effectively prioritizing and delegating. Second, and this is probably even more important, I had a network of support. I had sponsors, mentors and advisors helping me overcome the hurdles, sometimes telling me, “Jennifer, you’re ready for this role, and I’m here to help you succeed.”

Do women need mentors and ­sponsors to get ahead?

Women absolutely need to seek out what I would call allies, coaches and mentors. It’s much more difficult to seek out a sponsor. Sponsors have to give their power and their influence to support the rise of women leaders. And that’s where the organizational commitment and capability to create the culture and the environment for sponsorship comes in.

Are companies doing enough to help women succeed?

If organizations were doing enough, we would have solved the gender equity and leadership problem a long time ago. We do see encouraging signs, but we’re not there yet. Some companies are setting ambitious goals around gender representation and leadership. They’re putting significant investment into executive sponsorship and leadership development programs for women. They’re working hard to ensure that they’re eliminating the bias in their talent acquisition, performance management and high-potential selection, as well as all of their other people systems and processes. 

Why are we not seeing more ­progress in women getting ahead, when data suggests that companies with more women in senior roles are more profitable?

I’ve stopped talking about the data, because we’ve been talking about it for so long without making significant progress. I think the forces for change have got to be stronger than the forces for the status quo. It takes an executive-level commitment, understanding and prioritization to move the needle. We need to focus on the heart in addition to the head, and help all leaders see the benefit of diverse teams at all levels.

What drew you to this kind of work? 

Early in my career at Coca-Cola, I discovered another group inside the company supporting leaders, teams and the organization in becoming more effective. They were doing leadership coaching, organizational development and visioning work. I was so inspired and realized that was my purpose and the direction I wanted to take my career. Coca-­Cola trained me to become an internal consultant, and that has shaped the last 25 years of my career.

I’m standing on the shoulders of women who have come before me. I’m a Gen Xer, and I look at women like my mother, who’s a Boomer, and realize the sacrifices that they made. I’ve got my daughter, who is a Gen Z, and I realized that I want to make it easier for them. I was sandwiched right in the middle, where I had all the opportunities, but so many of the obstacles.

How do women rid themselves of their inner critics, such as the one that gave you pause about taking on the role at Linkage? 

We all have an inner critic, that voice of judgment in our head. For women, it tends to be louder and stronger. First, we need to acknowledge and become aware of those voices. Notice as it gets louder and louder until you become aware of it, and then you can stop it. Pause and be kind and compassionate to yourself. And finally, get curious about what’s going on. Ask yourself: Why do I feel this way? What’s preventing me from taking action? Sometimes, we need to ask for support. For me, several close people in my network helped me see that I was ready for the CEO role, which ultimately changed my life.


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