by Jim Rhodes, Business Advocate

I recently read on an Internet blog that women own several million businesses. Through their payrolls and products they contribute $1.6 trillion to the economy and employ nearly 9 million people nationwide. A young lady friend owns a small company that makes gunnery targets for military tanks. She competes aggressively with the big companies for Federal government contracts. On the other side of that accomplishment, another friend teaches business owners how to land and administer government contracts. She is in great demand and has helped numerous business owners – many of them women – around Arizona. Women function very well as business owners and more importantly as business leaders.

A key outcome of a woman owning her own business is that she is rewarded with her independence. A woman who can make her own decisions is a participant in society rather than simply a spectator. Women have made great strides in business and politics. Unfortunately, they don’t get credit unless they stick to a nice script – no disagreeing, no contentious talk and certainly no emotion. Among males, differences of opinion are expected and accommodated. But let a female leader speak up against the popular grain and she is “emotional” and perhaps even a loose cannon. What we must realize is that in order to get the full value of her education, training and experience, we have to get out of her way and be good listeners. I can’t tell you how many times what I thought was in a wonderful and inclusive two-way conversation ended when somebody screamed, “Will you shut up and listen to me!”

In the Jobs for Life work readiness training program that Mark Vanderheyden offers through the Seeds of Hope, Debra and I stress the importance of younger women learning to be leaders. Debra distills leadership training to its component parts. Young women and young men learn how to walk with poise and self-confidence. As they mature, this will be walking with purpose and authority. Her students practice entering a room, assessing the situation and participating in whatever manner is most helpful to the group. She drills right down to the welcoming smile and a handshake. The techniques are right out of her restaurant dining room staff-training manuals. The value of this type of training is evident in the number of corporate executives who began their work careers at McDonalds and other eateries. Servant leadership is a good way to begin developing a resume for greater responsibility down the line.

In the Jobs For Life training, female students learn that in the classroom and in life there is no traditional back seat they have to take. They are judged on their brains and their ability, and no one is more equal than the next person. One of the most difficult tasks in training business owners is to get them to see themselves as business executives. This is especially true with female business owners. When asked to describe their position in an organization many females choose one that does not require them to define and manage the activities of others.

Where can we start to change? In the wonderful world of entrepreneurship, we create our own path to success. Female-owned businesses account for almost half of all privately held firms. The number of women who express an interest in becoming entrepreneurs is also rising. Yet they’re still regularly deterred from taking that path. Even though many entrepreneurs are not wildly successful, perhaps financially, there is a certain panache that comes with owning a business. Our education system provides nearly the same exposure to business and leadership principles for both men and women. That’s where it stands and where change will need to begin. Culturally, beyond the training, we still see that men can and will make a job, while we encourage women to simply take a job.

Somewhere between birth and a goal of becoming a responsible leader, I suspect that we have a number of opportunities to assess a person’s “leader or not” potential. Leadership development is a process not a program. Locally we have a number of outstanding efforts to expose our citizens of all ages to the nuts and bolts of leadership. These include school clubs, citizen academies, service organizations and various “boot camps”. In the leadership development continuum, perhaps we need to include an additional step of voluntary assessment of leadership readiness.