EP: 163 In Her Own Voice: The Rise To CEO With Jennifer McCollum

Brave Women at Work | Jennifer McCollum | Women Leaders


Here’s a sneak peek at what’s happening with Brave Women at Work in 2024. I am working on building a course for you. Yes, that’s right, a new course with a group coaching component is coming your way. I am looking for women to interview about professional confidence, so if you would like to be part of my research, email me at hello@bravewomenatwork.com. You can also always find me on LinkedIn and send me a private message there too.

One of the key themes I am finding in my research is women struggling with communication at work. It may be fear of sharing because they don’t want to be seen as incompetent, having to twist their communication a certain way to get others to do things, act like they don’t know something and play the damsel in distress, so they don’t come off as a know-it-all or intimidating, I feel like I’ve heard it all. And you know what? It’s sad that in 2024, we as professional, capable women often feel like we can’t own our voice and stand in our power. This and so many other things act as large barriers to our ascent into leadership.

So, let’s change that, shall we?

My guest today, Jennifer McCollum, and her new book In Her Own Voice: A Woman’s Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership, aims to do just that.

During my chat with Jennifer, we discussed:

  1. Jennifer’s own professional journey to CEO of Linkage.
  2. What stirred Jennifer to write the book.
  3. Why she believes only 10% of women are Fortune 500 CEOs and less than 30% are senior leaders.
  4. What are some of the barriers that hold professional women back and what we can do about it.
  5. How our male counterparts and companies as a whole can support women and their professional growth.

And the benefits of women-led companies.

Listen to the podcast here


In Her Own Voice: The Rise To CEO With Jennifer McCollum

Let’s start with a sneak peek at what I’m working on with Brave Women at Work in 2024. A drum roll, please. I am working on building a course for you. Yes, that’s right. A new course with a group coaching component is coming your way. I’m looking for women to interview about the topic of professional confidence, which is going to be a central theme in the course. If you would like to be part of my research, email me at Hello@BraveWomenAtWork.com. You can also find me on LinkedIn and send me a private message over there.

One of the key themes I’m already seeing in my research and conversations with working women is that we are struggling with communication at work. It ranges all over the place. It may be a fear of sharing because we don’t want to be seen as incompetent, something around having to twist our communication a certain way to get others to do things, acting like we don’t know something, and maybe even playing the damsel in distress so we don’t come off as a know-it-all or intimidating. I feel like I’ve heard it all in these conversations so far.

One of the things I’ve been wondering and thinking about in all of these conversations is it’s 2024. It’s sad that we, as professional, capable women, often feel like we can own our voices and stand in our power. This and so many other things act as a large barrier to our ascent in our leadership. Even if you don’t want to be a leader, just advancing in your contributor career holds us back. My challenge for us is let’s change that, shall we?

In this episode, my guest is Jennifer McCollum. Her book, In Her Own Voice: A Woman’s Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership aims to do that. It’s confusing. You got two Jennifers you’re dealing with. We tried to make it as easy as possible. We discussed her professional journey to CEO of Linkage, what stirred Jennifer to write her book, and why she believes only 10% of women are Fortune 500 CEOs and less than 30% of us are senior leaders. What are some of the barriers she saw written about in the book that hold us back and what can we do about it? How our male counterparts and companies as a whole can support women and their professional growth and the benefits of women-led companies?

Before we kick off our conversation, here is more about Jennifer. Jennifer McCollum is the CEO of Linkage, a SHRM company, the Society for Human Resource Management if you’re not in the HR arena, where she oversees this leadership development firm’s strategic direction and global operations. With a mission to change the face of leadership, Linkage has dedicated many years to improving leadership effectiveness and equity in hundreds of organizations globally. Linkage provides assessments, training, coaching, consulting, and conferences with solutions designed to accelerate purposeful leaders, advance women leaders, and create inclusive organizations.


Brave Women at Work | Jennifer McCollum | Women Leaders


Jennifer is a highly sought-after consultant and speaker with deep expertise in inclusive leadership and advancing women leaders. She has delivered numerous workshops, keynotes, webinars, and podcasts to thousands of leaders globally on live and virtual stages, including the 100 Leaders Live, which is Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches Conference, Chief Learning Officer Exchange, Chester Elton’s “Leading with Gratitude” LinkedIn Live, John Baldoni’s “Grace Under Pressure” LinkedIn Live, Candy O’ Terry’s The Story Behind Her Success Podcast, and VoiceAmerica radio broadcast.

As we discussed, Jennifer is the author of the book In Her Own Voice: A Woman’s Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership. She has also been published in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Chief Talent Development Officer, CEO Refresher, and Real Leaders. She is a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches.

Before we get started, if you’re enjoying this show, please make sure to leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. I’d love to share a review. “A while back, I was searching for podcasts about like-minded women at work. Since finding Brave Women at Work, I’m hooked. The interviews are interesting and inspiring. Thank you.” Thank you so much for that review out there. I appreciate the support.

If this show has motivated, inspired, touched your heart, and pushed you to excel in your career, any of those or all of them, make sure that you leave a rating and review. It also would be awesome if you shared this with a friend, a colleague, or a family member so that it may help them as well. If it’s touched you, please share the good word.

I have one spot left for individual coaching. I help my clients with claiming their confidence, accelerating their leadership, and speaking up. If you would like to grow in one or all of these areas, visit my website at BraveWomenAtWork.com and schedule a 30-minute discovery call. On that call, we will decide if this is the right fit for you. Visit BraveWomenAtWork.com to learn more. Let’s welcome Jennifer to the show.

Jennifer, welcome to the show. How are you?

Jen, I am fantastic. I’ve been looking forward to this.

Me too. I forgot to ask you, do you go by Jen or Jennifer? You tell me because I know there are so many variations since I have the same name.

Given that you’re a Jen, I would love to go by Jennifer. For me, they’re interchangeable.

First off, I’m excited to jump into our conversation. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background story and how you’ve gotten to where you are?

I always love this question because I ponder how you take many years of work and boil it all down. I love to start with the end and move backward to a few clicks. As your readers know, I am the CEO of Linkage, which is a company dedicated to changing the face of leadership. What that means to us is twofold. One is figurative, changing the perspective of what the most effective leaders do, and what the best leadership is.

For the purpose of our conversation, it’s going to be that literal definition, which is increasing the number of women leaders at all levels fast. We’ll talk about how and why that’s important. The reason I love my job is it’s a culmination of my purpose, which is to support leaders, teams, and organizations to fulfill their potential. I’ve always had a special place in my work and heart for supporting women leaders.

Before this job, I spent about twelve years in publicly traded companies running business units in the leadership space. It was there that I found a love of growing, managing, and building businesses that will make the world’s leaders better. Before that, what led me to all that work was starting and spending the first five years at the Coca-Cola company, getting clear about what I wanted to do in the world.

I started as a marketing and communications professional, not a leadership professional at all. Coca-Cola helped me transform into the professional I am now. I became a consultant for eight years, consulting back to Coca-Cola, and then running business units designed to drive leaders. It’s only in retrospect that you look back and say that it was my entrepreneurial experience, corporate experience, and private equity-backed experience all woven together and aligned to work that has fulfilled my purpose in helping leaders, specifically, women leaders achieve their aspirations.

I’m new to the Linkage company. Did you found the Linkage company? It’s also attached to SHRM. Can you give me a little bit more background or intel on Linkage?

I did not found the company. The company was founded when I was in high school. It was in the mid-’80s. Anyone who has been in the leadership and human resource space for many years would know of Linkage. It’s changed and morphed over the years. By the time I was asked to be the CEO, the company was private equity backed so we knew it would go to market and sell. That was why I signed on for the job. We did sell to SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, at the end of 2022.

The reason I loved it so much was because, for many years, Linkage has been doing research and aggregating data on millions of leaders to try and isolate what is it that’s driving leadership effectiveness and what the best leaders do. We had a 25-year database on women leaders, specifically the perception of women leaders around their organization and the strengths and challenges women leaders face through 360 feedback.

That rich data drives our perspectives and frameworks. What we do in the world is assessments, individual and organizational, live digital and virtual development. We will run one of the largest women in leadership conferences in the entire world. It’s been going on for many years. We do some coaching and consulting with women and organizations.

Thank you for giving me that overview. I know about LinkedIn and SHRM but didn’t know about Linkage so I’ve been educated. Thank you. I wanted to talk about your book. It came out and the title is In Her Own Voice: A Woman’s Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership. What is the overview or the genesis of this book?

Brave Women at Work | Jennifer McCollum | Women Leaders
In Her Own Voice: A Woman’s Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership

The book is a Linkage, now SHRM, book. It’s one part of what we call our portfolio, our Advancing Women Leaders Solution that includes assessments, developments, keynotes, and conferences. It’s a funny story. I went to my executive team in March or so of 2022. I said, “I know this is a tricky time. It’s the post-COVID and we’re still accelerating our transformation and return to growth after some very difficult COVID years.”

“I know we’re packaging the company for sale but we are seeing such important trends both externally with women and women’s burnout and the awareness, especially given COVID, that women face a much more challenging COVID environment. We can talk about why but we were also seeing internal trends in our data, what women were struggling with, and what organizations needed to do to support the rise of women leaders.”

I said to my team, “We have a story to tell. I believe if we could capture that story in the book of what’s happening out there with women in the workplace, what is changing in the unique hurdles that they’re facing, why they are unique to women, what COVID did do to accelerate them or support them, and very specific actionable guidance on how we overcome the hurdles as women leaders and as organizations supporting them, we can have a much greater impact.”

My executive team looked at me like I was insane and said, “How are we going to do all that?” I said, “If I have your support, I will author the book but I won’t do it without you.” What you’ll see in the book is what we call an actionable roadmap to help any woman who aspires to advance in her career and any executive, male or female, or the entire spectrum of gender, who aspires to support them. In many ways, this book is very targeted at men as well, who are still 70% of the world’s executives and leaders.

Talking about leaders, and I know that part of the book title is going to CEO, I like that the fact the book talks about any level of leadership. If a woman wants to get to CEO, then amazing. This can help a woman, whether she wants to be a manager, a director, VP, or SVP, it doesn’t matter the level.

I titled it A Woman’s Rise to CEO because that was my aspiration but it’s only one aspiration. Even for women who are intentionally deciding to downshift in their careers for some time or women who decide they want to be individual contributors versus managers, it doesn’t matter. What is most powerful as I travel the world giving keynote addresses on this book is the circle of women that surround me afterward to tell me their stories, their different levels and roles. They’re having different challenges at work, home, the community, or beyond. The book can support them no matter where they are.

That’s helpful for everybody reading. You don’t have to aspire to be CEO. You can be at whatever level you want or even downshift and still take a lot of good nuggets of wisdom from this book. That’s interesting. I was looking at the site and the book. You quoted that only 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs and less than 30% of senior leaders are women. I’m wondering why. I’ve seen post-COVID. I’ve read many articles that there’s stagnant growth for women in these C-Suite or higher areas if they want to be business owners or what have you. What’s driving that low growth?

McKinsey and Lean In have been tracking this for a decade and it’s important data to study. Let’s talk about North America. I’m assuming most of your readers are there. We are seeing progress and the most progress we’re seeing is at the highest levels. Board positions are 1 in 3. Open board positions are filled by a woman. In the C-Suite, we did a little mini short-term celebration in the first quarter of 2020 when women crossed the 10% barrier of the Fortune 500 CEOs for the first time.

The reason it’s not cause for huge celebration is because we finally have more women CEOs than men named John or Michael but it’s still only 10%. It’s gone up 6%. You’re like, “At least we’re making progress there.” If you go to the other end, this is where the challenge is most. If you look at the manager level, senior director, or senior manager level, the growth is so slow. The change of women in those levels is only 2%. If you’re not feeding the pipeline funnel, it’s going to be very difficult to see growth from within organizations. You can trade at the top of the most senior women but you’re not seeing growth in the pipeline.

You ask why that is. The truth is when you move from the very first move to entry-level, by and large, there are about the same number of men and women entering the workforce. You then start to track promotions to manager, senior manager, and director. The promotion rate is much higher for men than women. Why is that? There’s a lot of external bias but there’s also a lot of internal bias.

At Linkage, we focus on what is preventing women from seeing their full potential, clarifying their aspirations, and making the ask, whether it’s the promotion or the salary. We focus on what women can do internally while simultaneously focusing on what the organization needs to do to ensure equitable talent systems and a culture where women feel like they can thrive in their careers.

In addition to what you said, what are some of the other hurdles you’ve seen with the companies, the women you have worked with, and what they’re facing in that rise to the top? What hurdles are they facing?

This is the premise of most of the book, about 80% of the book, and this is what I love about our Linkage data and research. We have been validating these hurdles. We’re tracking year over year what is working and what’s not, both from their perception of their organizations and their ability to overcome the hurdle. Let’s get super specific. The uber-overarching hurdle is called the inner critic. The inner critic is that voice in our heads.

We all have one, the entire spectrum of gender, men and women but the women’s inner critic is louder and it can prevent us from taking action. It’s that voice of judgment. It could be pointed at ourselves or others but it could sound like this, “I’m not worth it. I shouldn’t ask for that raise or bonus because I won’t get it anyway. I shouldn’t speak up in that meeting.” That inner critic, if we’re pointing it out ourselves, we call it one down. It can prevent us from achieving our aspirations.

The story I often tell is when I was being considered for the CEO job at Linkage, my inner critic went crazy. It sounded like this, “You are not ready to be a CEO. You need to be a number two first so you can be properly groomed. You haven’t managed a P&L from the revenue line to the EBITDA line. You’re not good enough yet,” or my favorite, “What kind of mother are you? You have a kid in elementary school, middle school, and high school. They need you. You’re going to take a job where you have to go commute to Boston from DC.” The inner critic was preventing me from taking action.

It took a couple of allies in my network. They happened to be men. It was a little intervention like, “Jennifer, if we believe we’re ready for the CEO job in a private equity-backed company, why don’t you think you’re ready? If not now, when?” That’s the uber-hurdle. There are seven others and I’ll pause there so that you can jump back in. The couple has been showing up and spiking more than others for the last many years. I can go through the top three or you tell me where you want to go.

With the inner critic, I thank you for being vulnerable because someone that has the poise and the expertise, your level, we women or even me included, as a host and the creation of this platform, I’m like, “Jennifer, you don’t have the inner critic,” but here you are sharing as you were about to be named CEO when you were up for CEO for Linkage, you too faced inner critic, which shares with me like, “We all have to deal with this. It’s just not me.” It’s not my colleague. It’s you too.

I loved that you claimed yourself as a host because you told me that this is something you up and said, “This is needed. It’s a calling in the world that I have and I’m going to do that starting in 2020,” and you’re 150 in. The inner critic will spike at various points in the day, the week, the month, and your career where you feel a little bit less confident or more vulnerable. It’s not that we all don’t have an inner critic barking at us throughout the day every day.

The inner critic will spike at various points in the day, week, or month in your career when you feel a little bit less confident or a little bit more vulnerable. Share on X

This is what we teach and what’s in the book as well. The question is, 1) How quickly can you become aware of it? 2) Can you pause long enough to take a deep breath and reflect on what’s happening? 3) Can you find compassion either for yourself if your inner critic is pointed at you or for the other if it’s pointed at someone else? Can you get a lot more curious?

Like you were a new show host a few years ago, I’m a new author. This book came out in mid-November of 2023. It was my first book. At this point, I’m a confident CEO, mother, and business leader. I’m a less confident author. This was new for me. Even when we were driving toward this Amazon bestseller status, the algorithm that my agent was pushing to was, “Jennifer, you’re close. All of these people who are supporting you, if they were to buy the book in the same three-hour block, the algorithm would spike and you would become a number one Amazon bestseller. You should do that.” I did.

One person of the hundreds that were like, “I’ll buy two. I’m here to support you. Way to go. This is amazing,” texted my husband and said, “Your wife is out of control with her book launch promotion in my humble opinion.” When something triggers like that, that is open season for the inner critic. It didn’t matter how many positive things. It brought me right to my knees. It was like, “Who do I think I am? I’m not a real author. Why am I pushing books on my friends? What kind of person are you?”

I was so paralyzed that my husband, trying to help, said, “What do you care what this guy said? Look at all the support that you have.” While it wasn’t exactly what I needed to hear because I was wallowing in a lot of self-pity at the moment, it allowed me enough time to pause and become aware that this was my inner critic talking. I was sitting there holding a book with my name on it. I was a published author and I could choose to let my inner critic make up a story about me that was not true. Let me pause it. Those are two examples of my inner critic in the last 1 month to 5 years. It’s alive and well for all of us.

Let’s start with the other three hurdles that you see women face. I’ll let you go from here.

I’ll do one at a time so you can get a word in. The top one that women have faced, and we’ve been tracking this, is called proving your value. Another way that we put that is by over-rowing the boat. Women, starting very early in life but certainly in our professional lives, tend to put our heads down with this misguided belief that if we work harder and say yes to more and more, somebody will notice and give us the money, title, raise, and resources.

I had a woman come up to me, a very seasoned professional who’s older than me, maybe 40 years plus into her career, who said, “I let my work speak for itself. People should see how hard I’m working and what I’m doing. My manager should be able to convey that.” I said, “How’s that working for you? Do you feel like you are recognized, honored, and rewarded for the work that you’re doing without self-promoting at all and taking on more and more?”

The trick here is to get clear of where you should be proving your value and where you should be inspiring others by delegating to them, giving them stretch assignments, and offering them the chance to do work that you may have done previously because they might even be able to do it better. I have loads of stories about this. Women have a hard time saying no. We are encouraged way too often to say yes to everything. Let me pause there.

For the over-rowing the boat, I’ve been here. I was that person. I was a shy kid growing up, which is funny. I say this on the show frequently. If I were a wallflower kid in seventh grade, painfully shy, stuck to the side of the seventh-grade dance walls, thinking I would never speak up, you can speak up too being a host and someone who also does speaking and things like that.

At work, I was that person who didn’t want to raise their hand. If I worked hard, the problem with that hurdle would be that you’re relying on someone else to have your back, advocate for you, sponsor you, and all of that. What if they don’t? At the end of the day, they also have to take care of themselves. You’re relinquishing your professional success to someone else, hoping and wishing that they will for you. I beg people in this show to don’t do that. You have to advocate for yourself.

That’s number one. That aligns perfectly with another hurdle we can talk about later, which is called recognizing confidence. In addition to what you’re saying, the other thing that happens, the unintended consequence, is, “Jen’s awesome. She says yes to everything and her work is exceptional. Keep loading more on Jen because we know she’s going to say yes and it’s going to be good.”

Frankly, we haven’t talked about this but women are not only taking on the first shift of their jobs or the radically disproportionate share of the second shift, which is the childcare, home care, elder care, and everything that happens outside of the professional job. There then was the spike of the pandemic. The third shift is the staff care.

It’s the disproportionate helping staff through burnout, helping them prioritize, and helping be the sponsor of the ERG groups and the DEI initiatives. You’re a woman so you should be jumping right in and helping everybody else. That third shift is also unpaid and unrecognized. It’s also contributing to the burnout. Proving your value, to your point, people won’t necessarily see your excellence but you could become the dumping ground for a lot of other things that may not be aligned with what you want to do.

Let’s swing back around to clarity. I want to learn more about that one.

Clarity is my personal favorite. I ask women to paint a picture for me or describe in as colorful language as they can, “What would it look like for you to be wildly successful in your blank?” It’s usually career and professional aspirations that we’re working with at Linkage. It can be any aspect of your life. Frankly, the book has visioning exercises and guidance for creating and aspiring to the life you want. Very specifically for this episode, we’ll focus on the professional piece of this.

When I say, “What does your work look like two years from now?” It’s got to be far enough away so it doesn’t feel like the current reality. The vast majority of the time, women will say, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it. No one’s ever asked me that,” or they’ll say, “I don’t have time for that.” The first, second, and third shifts don’t use that language but I can see it. “I don’t have time to think about myself.”  If they do have any specificity, it’s usually in the context of, “I want my team, organization, or family to be successful.” They are omitted from the picture.

What I want women to do is to be able to articulate what it looks like, and we talk about the clarity statement. It doesn’t have to be a title but the strengths you’re using, the environment you’re working in, and the type of people that you’re either managing or your peers. If you are clear about the industry or job role, great. If you can articulate it to others, then the universe will conspire to help you achieve it. If you can’t articulate it to others, we don’t know how to help you.

If you can articulate what you want to others, then the universe will conspire to help you achieve it. Share on X

You have to be clear and articulate it to others. You have to put it out there, essentially.

This happened. I was speaking at a book event. Three women independently came up and said, “Can you give me your secret on how you get that clarity?” I tell a story in the book about how I took a sabbatical in 2018 before I started at Linkage. To be clear, you do not have to quit your job or take a sabbatical to get clarity. I happened to be between jobs and was very intentional about taking the time to gain clarity. I did not want to jump to another job at a publicly traded company where I would run a business unit because I had done that for 10 or 12 years.

I knew my soul was saying, “It is time for a different type of experience,” but I was stuck. I didn’t know what I wanted. I made the commitment to myself that for as long as it took, I was going to, every day, do one thing for my body like exercise or walks in the forest. One thing for my spirit could be coffee with friends, engaging in book clubs, hanging out with my kids, or talking to my family. The last thing was one thing for my job clarification or job search.

Some days, it was one email or phone call, and a little exploration of companies on the internet. Over the course of 90 days, I started to explore multiple paths. We called it design prototypes of your life. One was I could start my own company. I could go to a small middle market company where I could be a CEO or a number two. Another one was if all else failed, I knew I could go back to a publicly traded company. I’ve been doing that for a long time.

Those 60 days helped me open my mind, network, and conversations about things I had never known before. I didn’t even know what private equity was or the model of private equity. When I started to learn about portfolio company CEOs in a private equity environment and small to middle market businesses, all of a sudden, I realized, “I might not be able to be a CEO at a publicly traded company but I can be a CEO at a small to middle market company. What would that look like?” I went down that path for 30 to 60 days. I had 3 job offers within 3 or 4 months, 1 at a nonprofit, 1 in the academic executive education world, and 1 as the CEO of Linkage. It never would’ve happened had I not gotten clarity.

Here’s the question. You had prefaced this as saying, “You don’t have to leave your job to do this.” For you, it worked. That was what you needed. You listened to your intuition and this is what worked for you. It’s for a woman who either can’t or doesn’t want to leave current employment but is looking for clarity. It could be even with her company. Maybe she wants a different position, to advance, or maybe she wants to scale back. How do women get clarity when maybe they have to stay employed and stay within their current jobs?

That’s the majority of us, frankly. What I love is we’ve got hundreds of clients at Linkage. We’re a B2B, a business-to-business organization. What I love is that we’re finding that internally. This happened at the US House of Representatives where I may speak to their staff and they said, “How are we going to keep this going? It’s great, Jennifer, that you’re going to come give a keynote.”

I said, “The easiest lift is to have everybody get the book. Give it to them or have them get it in audiobook. Create a book group where women or men, but I do most likely to women, come together to help each other overcome these hurdles. If you’re all focused on the hurdle of clarity, start with that book because there are all kinds of exercises, stories, and advice.”

There are other books I reference of. There’s a book called Designing Your Life. There is a workbook. It’s wonderful. I worked through that book during my sabbatical, which helped me. There are many resources. I find that it’s a lot easier to do it in a community with others. You can certainly get clarity on your own but if you do it in community with others, it helps push you maybe a little bit deeper and clearer than you could be if you’re trying to do it on your own.

You can certainly get clarity on your own but if you do it in community with others, it helps push you a little bit deeper and clearer. Share on X

That’s a good resource link. I was like, “That sounds familiar.” I have that in my Audible list. I have to go back and maybe re-listen to that. I’m like, “I’ve listened to that one.” That helped you.

Between my book and that book, that’s a good starting point. I have pushed a lot of people to that Designing Your Life book. I should be getting a commission off of it.

We’ve gone through two. Let’s go through one more and then that’ll be a teaser because we want everyone to go and get your book. What’s the third hurdle you want to cover?

The third hurdle is making the ask. It’s aligned very carefully and deliberately with negotiation. Making the ask is asking with confidence and clarity about what you want as opposed to what women tend to do, which is water it down and ask for either what they think they would be amenable to the other party, or worse, what they think they deserve. It is always going to be lower than a man making the ask. This isn’t my opinion. This is data-backed.

When you even look at the salary and equity, the pay inequity that still exists between men and women starts very early in our careers. By the time women get 3 or 4 decades into their career, if you are a White woman, your pay inequity is going to be in the $750,000 or $800,000 range. If you are a Black woman, it’s going to be in the $1.2 million range. If you are a Hispanic woman, it’ll be in the $1.5 million range. That pay inequity is very real. It doesn’t have to be about pay. It could be around flexibility, resources, or support, whether it’s at home or in the office.

We talk about getting aligned to your clarity. First of all, who do you need? That’s about who you need to bring into your network internally or externally as advisors, mentors, coaches, and sponsors. What do you need to ask them for? I have a lot of stories in the book around mistakes that I made and when I did it well. As you can imagine, engaging with a private equity board, I was making the ask all the time. It was not only my employment agreement but also the bonuses for the executive team and the capital raise we needed. We had to divest of an international operation. I was asking all the time.

Let me tell you something. I didn’t always get what I wanted but you get a whole lot more of what you want when you ask because if you don’t, there’s a 100% chance you will not get what you want. We talk about how to make the ask, when to make the ask, and how to make the ask and preserve the relationship, which is also a fear that women have. If I ask and I’m told no, what happens to the relationship? Men do not worry about that. We need to make sure that we are building the business case that we’re asking at the appropriate time.

I have some funny stories about how I did that incorrectly. Mostly, women are conditioned that if we’re told no, we need to retreat. Men will come back multiple times and hit that negotiation head-on. That’s another reason that they often get more than what women will do. Frankly, there’s a backlash as well. It’s been proven that women who do come back are perceived as either too aggressive or pushy. We need to condition our society and organizations to ensure that we’re treating the entire gender scale with spectrum and equity when it comes to making the ask. This is an external bias.

We need to condition our society and organizations to ensure that we're treating the entire gender scale and spectrum with equity when it comes to making the ask. Share on X

That is a big deal for me. I had a client talk to me about a job that she’s going to be pursuing elsewhere. When she went back to her existing company, they were like, “We were going to do this and that.” Why did it take her leaving? She had opened her mouth but even then, they didn’t give her the ask and it took her leaving the organization to understand what she was worth.

When we started with why aren’t we seeing the acceleration of gender equity in our organizations faster at those levels, that’s exactly why. Exasperated women are either burnt out or exhausted by trying to maneuver in a culture that isn’t supporting them. The actual end of the book, which I often quote from, because it’s not a mystery thriller so there are no spoiler alerts, is, “Women, you deserve to be in an environment where you are celebrated, not tolerated. A place where you have what you need to grow and thrive. A place where you can operate completely authentically. A place you love and a place that loves you.”

Brave Women at Work | Jennifer McCollum | Women Leaders
Women Leaders: Women, you deserve to be in an environment where you are celebrated and not tolerated, a place where you have what you need to grow and thrive, a place where you can operate completely and authentically, and a place you love and that loves you.


You’ve got to value yourself enough. You and I have been in the workforce for a long time. There used to be this stigma that you have to stay at a place a certain time. You don’t need to do that anymore. I’m not advocating bouncing every two months either but you need to find a place that values you and understands your worth and what you bring to the table.

Our previous generation, if you look at the Boomer generation, would maybe only have 2 to 3 career transitions in companies over the course of their entire career. I’m Gen X. Those numbers are in the 8 to 10. If you look at Y and Z, we’re talking 20 to 30, the whole expectation of how long you have to stay. I agree with you. When people change jobs every year, it does cause a little bit of a question. The story of this job shifting and evolving is much more amenable to, “That makes a lot of sense.”

The trick for our organizations is, and this is something that I’m very proud of for what we’ve done at Linkage and then SHRM, can we create the culture, development, executive level commitment, equity, our people systems, and processes? Even if the Gen Y and Z want to bounce, they’re bouncing inside and we’re giving them the experiences that they want as opposed to having to leave. When I say we’re trading executive women at the top, it’s because they’re exasperated and leaving. Therefore, the pipeline is never built.

I like the idea of bouncing inside. I haven’t talked on the show about that. Honestly, Jennifer, anytime I’ve wanted to go up in my career as a Gen X, I’ve had to leave. I’m a Gen X. Why can’t we create environments, which will dovetail with my next question, where people can bounce up around wherever they want to go inside the organization?

This is what’s super cool about the work we do at Linkage in terms of gathering perception data so far. We talked about the hurdles and we got through the inner critic and 3 of them but there are 4 others. I’m going to list them and then we can move on to the next topic. The other four are internal bias. We talk a lot about external bias but internal bias is the beliefs that you hold about yourself that no longer serve you.

An example of that was I can’t be a good mother and a CEO. It was an internal bias that I had to reckon with. Operating with curiosity, holding that bias out there, asking yourself for help, and having others help you, “Is this belief serving me? If not, how can I evolve it,” is internal bias. Recognize confidence is the one that says you can be exceptional. Most women have the competence but if we’re not recognized in that competence, it becomes very difficult for us to have that internal confidence.

We’ve moved away from talking about helping women get over their Imposter syndrome or helping women be more confident. We’re saying, “What will it take for others to recognize us in our competence?” That’s going to help us feel like we’re more confident and capable. We are talking a lot about, and you referenced this, how do we help women become way more comfortable in self-promotion appropriately, shining a light on our excellence?

If we don’t feel comfortable doing that, how do we secure allies to help shine that light for us until we feel more comfortable doing it? That’s recognized confidence. Branding and presence are less about showing up in a certain way, dressing, talking, or wearing our hair in a certain way to assimilate to the leadership majority. It’s way more about how we show up in our authenticity.

Branding and presence are now less about showing up in a certain way and more about how we show up in our authenticity. Share on X

This is the authentic leadership of being a leader and a woman. If you have any other form of underrepresentation, whether it’s race and ethnicity, LGBTQ, or disability, how do we show up authentically so that we can shine in our excellence without having to pretend? It’s exhausting to try and pretend to be like something or someone else.

The last one is networking, which we talked about a little bit. How do we not only curate the network, which women are very good at doing? How do we activate the network? It ensures that we are as willing to make network requests as we are willing to serve our network. Women often say, “I’m willing to do that for someone who asks me but I’m not willing to make the ask of my network myself.”

That goes through the whole ask thing. They want to help you. That’s all good stuff. I want them to go and get the book. A couple more questions and I don’t want to keep you too long. We’ve talked a lot about what women can do. I don’t want to vilify our lovely men but what can men do? What can companies do in general? What can we do to support women and their growth in overcoming these hurdles?

Here’s what they can do. I love that you said vilify men because I want to switch that frame to celebrate men. I’m going to tell you why in the context of what organizations can do. Part of what organizations can do is tied up in what executives can do. Executives are 70% men at the VP-plus level in organizations in the United States. Most of those are White men. We’re going to talk about celebrating them in a moment.

Here are the four things organizations can do. The first is to create a culture where women, let’s talk about women, feel valued, respected, and feel like they belong. We at Linkage know what that looks like. We know how to measure it and what it takes. The second is equity in their people, systems, and processes. For example, when a job opens up, women have to feel like, “I know about it. I am considered for it. I understand how I can put my hat in the ring.”

Too often, jobs will open someone’s placed more often than not a man and the job closes. That does not feel like equity in the people systems. There are all kinds of people systems. There are high potential, stretch experiences, and talent acquisition succession. The third is executive action. This is where men come in. This answers the question, “Are your organization’s executives committed? Are they engaged in efforts to advance women?” You would know that if they’re not just saying the right things, and by they, I mean executives, men and women, but they’re also doing the right things.

Doing the right things would be like actively operating as committed sponsors in the organization, ensuring that we’re leveraging our political capital and influence to support women leaders. We are setting goals as an organization aligned to gender equity or any type of equity in leadership. We’re holding ourselves accountable for that. We have programs in place, and this gets to the fourth lever.

We are investing disproportionately in leadership development for women and giving them access to formal and informal development. It doesn’t mean men shouldn’t be developed. What it takes to be an effective leader is the same across genders but women have these unique hurdles they have to overcome. At Linkage, we have very specific programming to support women in overcoming hurdles and support executives in becoming better sponsors.

You talked about articulation. That is super helpful and very clear on how we can celebrate men through the process. Thank you for sharing that.

Let’s go back to vilifying versus celebrating. When I’m keynoting, which I do all the time, there are always men in the audience. Sometimes, they’re half and half or more than half because I’m talking to executives. Most of the time, they’re less than 5% or 10%. I will always start by saying, “If you identify as a man in the audience, I want you to stand up.” They do and look very uncomfortable. I say, “I want everybody to give them a huge round of applause.

We cannot accelerate gender equity and leadership without men. “Men, congratulations. You still hold 70% of the executive leadership positions across this country. Your commitment to being here and supporting as coaches, mentors, allies, and sponsors, and also, supporting women leaders is so important and I’m so glad you’re here.”

I asked all of my guests this. We talked a lot about it but I wanted your answer. What do you believe encapsulates what we’ve discussed? What are 1 to 2 ways women can be braver at work?

The bravest thing to do is the hardest thing to do. It can feel selfish but it’s not. Focus on yourself. What does success look like for you? Can you articulate it to your closest friends or family, your peers who support you, your manager, or your sponsor inside or outside? Get clarity because without it, you don’t know what to say yes or no to, and you don’t know what to ask for.

The second way to be brave is to practice asking. Ask for small things that don’t matter to build your capability and confidence. Slowly ask for bigger and the most important things related to whatever you need to achieve your aspirations. It may be time off, flexibility, resources, or money but practice as often as you can at home and the office.

I even joke with people on this show, “Send your steak back if it’s not cooked correctly.” It can be something simple like that but asking, representing, and advocating for yourself are ways to get started.

We didn’t talk about perfectionism. Women do suffer from this idea that this is proving their value. Not only do I have to work super hard but everything has to be perfect. I don’t know if you know who Reshma Saujani is but she was the CEO of Girls Who Code. She was on the stage at our Women’s Leadership Institute. She challenged all of us to write an email with a typo. You know there’s a typo in it. You’ve created a typo. Send it and see how it feels.

It seemed like such a simple thing. I wrote an important email and had my husband look over my shoulder to look at it. I said, “It’s already sent. What do you think?” He goes, “There’s a typo in it.” I said, “I’m okay with that.” I didn’t even look to see what the typo was but it did rip my heart a little bit because I don’t want to send an email with any typos. I wanted everything to be perfect.

Even when you said that, I bristled because everybody who has read this show for a while knows that I’m a perfectionist. Some people say embrace your perfectionism or a recovering perfectionist. Being a perfectionist can be helpful to a point but then after, it can be toxic. Good for you for sending an email and not caring if there’s a typo in it.

I was grateful to Reshma. I chuckled and said, “Reshma Saujani told me to send an email with a typo. I didn’t mean to do that one but I’m going to check that box.”

I double-checked the box but I did the homework. There you go. Where can women find you, the book In Her Own Voice: The Woman’s Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change in the Face of Leadership, and Linkage? Give us all of the details.

It is available anywhere on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, local bookstores, and airports. I found it was very exciting. Please, download and read it. I would love that. Connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m good on LinkedIn. A lot of women are telling me their stories by connecting and sending me messages via LinkedIn. It’s Jennifer Scherer McCollum on LinkedIn. Lastly, if you want to find out more about the broader spectrum of what our organization does for women leaders individually and in large organizations, you can go to SHRM.org/inherownvoice.

Jennifer, thank you so much for being on the show. I loved your energy and what you’re bringing to the work that you do. I’m excited to go even deeper into the book. I’m sure everyone will be too. Thank you, again.

Thank you, Jen. It was so much fun.

That’s a wrap on my discussion with Jennifer. I hope you found our conversation both valuable and inspiring. As a reminder, please rate, review, and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. The show is also available on any other podcast platform you enjoy. Until next time. Show up, overcome your hurdles to leadership, and be brave.


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About Jennifer McCollum

Brave Women at Work | Jennifer McCollum | Women LeadersJennifer McCollum is CEO of Linkage, a SHRM company, where she oversees the strategic direction and global operations of this leadership development firm. With a mission to “Change the Face of Leadership,” Linkage has dedicated 35 years to improving leadership effectiveness and equity in hundreds of organizations globally. Linkage provides assessments, training, coaching, consulting and conferences, with Solutions designed to Accelerate Purposeful Leaders; Advance Women Leaders; and Create Inclusive Organizations.

Jennifer is a highly sought-after consultant and speaker, with a deep expertise in Inclusive Leadership and Advancing Women Leaders. She has delivered workshops, keynotes, webinars and podcasts to thousands of leaders globally on live and virtual stages, including 100 Leaders Live (Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches conference), Chief Learning Officer Exchange, Chester Elton’s “Leading with Gratitude” LinkedIn Live, John Baldoni’s “Grace under Pressure” LinkedIn Live, Candy O’Terry’s “The Story Behind Her Success” podcast, and VoiceAmerica radio broadcast.

Jennifer is the author of the forthcoming book In Her Own Voice: A Woman’s Rise to CEO: Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership, due in November 2023, as well as a contributing author to Leadership in a Time of Crisis. She has also been published in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Chief Talent Development Officer, CEO Refresher, and Real Leaders. She is a member of then Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches.

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