Unlock Your Potential: 6 Strategies for Women Leaders to Overcome Gender Bias

Welcome to the Innovative Leadership Newsletter, brought to you by the Innovative Leadership Institute, where we bring you thought leaders and innovative ideas on leadership topics each week. This interview is part of the International Leadership Association Series.  This series features guests from the International Leadership Association 2022 Global Conference held in Washington, D.C., in October 2022.

This week’s article is written by Maureen Metcalf, founder and CEO of the Innovative Leadership Institute. It is a companion piece to her interview with Reta Jo Lewis, President and Chair of the Board of Directors of EXIM (Export-Import Bank of the United States), on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Women on the Rise: A Leadership Journey which aired on February 7, 2023.

Short clip from the interview:

Link to the entire interview:

Listen to the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-Creating Our Future via Apple PodcastsTuneInStitcherSpotify,  Amazon Music,  AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One.

The leadership journey is fraught with obstacles and pitfalls. Despite so many gains over the last century, this remains especially true for women. But there are paths to success – and Reta Jo Lewis provides an excellent example.

Studying the role models in her family, as well as the political leaders she championed, Reta Jo forged her own leadership success as the first African American female president and chair of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. She distilled her experience into six critical steps you can follow to help on your own leadership path.

1. Have a strong foundation of education and knowledge.

From skilled trades to C-suite, this step is important for any career. Education is an investment. Start broad to build a strong base, then hone in on your chosen career field. And never stop learning; every single profession is evolving and changing, so keep your mind fresh. Formal education is great, but there’s lots to be learned by reading books, attending conferences, and networking with others. And seek out mentors! They’d love to share the experience and wisdom no textbook can duplicate.

2. Develop a mission and goal-oriented mentality.

This really boils down to working for something bigger than yourself. Reta Jo learned this as a child, growing up in a family of entrepreneurs who taught her the importance of giving back to the community. She took that attitude to her work in the White House, serving the nation, and now, serving the world through the Export Import Bank. That sense of mission, of setting high goals, gives you extra motivation to take on your leadership career’s inevitable challenge.

3. Look for guidance and role models who have been successful before.

This relates to having a mentor. A mentor is a role model you work with directly, but you can also study someone whose leadership style you admire from afar.

Either way, look for people who have achieved success in your particular field—though advice from a great leader usually works in any field. By building relationships with successful people, you can learn from their experiences, and steer clear of avoidable obstacles.

4. Build a strong professional network and collaborate with others.

Networking can be daunting, especially for introverts. But the rewards are well worth the effort: your network of friends, family, and professional peers is a rich pool of advice, wisdom, and support. It’s a great information conduit, too; you’ll often get leads on jobs and other opportunities through your network long before they become public knowledge.

We list collaboration here because it’s an easy and natural way to build a network. Each person you collaborate with gets to know you; working on assignments together builds your professional relationships one project at a time.

5. Remain persistent and focused on your goals.

You’re going to stumble on your path. There’s no path to success that doesn’t include failure. The key is to “fail forward,” to learn from that failure and use the knowledge gained to get closer to your goal. Persistence helps you get back up; focus helps you keep looking ahead.

Reflect on what went wrong and how to improve. Tap into your professional network or mentor for advice. Read about your role model for inspiration: they failed plenty, too! And don’t forget your network of friends and family; they’re at the ready to provide emotional support.

6. Have confidence in your abilities.

Believe in yourself…and believe in the skills and knowledge you have acquired.

There’s a big gender divide on this step. Several studies reveal that men are more willing to take a risk applying for a career-advancing job for which they don’t meet all of the qualifications. Women tend to apply only when they have all (or very nearly all) the qualifying traits.  If you followed the first five steps, you’re sure to have the knowledge needed to grow into any job. Hold on to that confidence so you take advantage of opportunities as they arise!

Even the best of us can lose confidence under heavy criticism, biases, and other obstacles. But networks, relationships, role models, and mentors can all help us see the strengths we lose sight of in those moments.


Taken together, these steps helped Reta Jo Lewis climb high in her leadership journey. Where will they take you?



On February 9, 2022, the U.S. Senate confirmed Reta Jo Lewis as EXIM’s President and Chair of the Board of Directors. Chair Lewis was sworn in by Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris on February 16, 2022. Ms. Lewis is a senior executive with over 25 years of leadership experience in international affairs, legal, public policy, business and regulatory affairs, and subnational diplomacy.

Ms. Lewis was most recently a Senior Fellow and Director of Congressional Affairs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. At GMF, Ms. Lewis led and oversaw initiatives, programs, and bipartisan exchanges for members of the U.S. Congress and their European counterparts, focusing on leadership development and subnational diplomacy efforts. Prior to her time at GMF, she served as the first-ever Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs under Secretary Hillary Clinton at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama-Biden Administration. As Special Representative, Lewis was the chief diplomat in charge of the international efforts to build and support strategic relationships between the federal government, state and local leaders, and their foreign counterparts. In 2013, she was awarded the Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award.

Ms. Lewis was the first Black woman to serve as Vice President and Counselor to the President at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She led the Chamber’s initiatives focused on fostering strategic alliances between small businesses, especially women- and minority-owned businesses, entrepreneurs, and executives. She is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Member of the Board of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security. Ms. Lewis received a J.D. from Emory University School of Law, an M.S.A.J. from American University, and a B.A. from the University of Georgia. She is a native of Statesboro, Georgia.



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Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-Creating Our Future via Apple PodcastsTuneInStitcherSpotify,  Amazon Music,  AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Also, stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute on LinkedIn.

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