Join a women’s leadership group, get inspired, then what?

Women’s leadership seminars and conferences have popped up all over the place within most major industries over the last few years. The meeting industry in particular is heavily represented by women, but the highest level of management roles in meetings and hospitality—general managers, vice presidents and CEOs—continue to be disproportionately filled by men.

Evidence that a lecture on women’s empowerment directly affects one’s career path is as rare as it is inspirational—and that’s exactly what happened when a town hall meeting took place in Kailua-Kona on Hawaii Island.

Cerelle Gooding is the director of sales at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on Hawaii Island, and had her sights set on the director of marketing title until she had a “sky’s the limit” epiphany after hearing two executives lead a talk about women in leadership roles (and, more specifically, the lack thereof).

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“I thought, why am I stopping at director of marketing? Why can’t I do more?” Gooding says. So the woman who’s spent more than 20 years in sales—between her current role and other sales positions at The Fairmont Orchid on Hawaii Island, as well as Hotel del Coronado, Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa, and several other properties in Greater San Diego—decided to change paths and set her focus on the role of general manager.

Gooding began a women’s leadership group to grow her passion and leadership skills—which was adopted by corporate, is now a staple group at every Four Seasons property and meets quarterly.

“My female co-workers were excited because they had been in the same town hall meeting about female leadership, so I came up with an agenda of action plans. Our first meeting was about what women wanted to get out of [the meeting],” Gooding says.

The leadership group resulted in a second leadership event, co-sponsored by the hotel’s director of learning—a book club that focused on similar topics. The first two books were Lean In and The Confidence Code, both of which focus on women in leadership and communication. The group has recruited men from the company as well, which Gooding says is key because this can help them to better understand how women communicate.

She admits that sales to GM isn’t the typical career path, as most general managers tend to have an operational background. But Gooding is in the midst of transitioning from her current role to director of marketing to hotel manager, to general manager, and is keeping an open mind when it comes to her final destination.

“I’m not opposed to going anywhere!” says Gooding, who arguably has two of America’s most beautiful destinations under her belt.

Beyond Empowerment

So why does Gooding’s experience seem to be an anomaly?

“The greatest challenges that women meet when trying to advance their career to the C-suite is perception and expectation,” says Mary Higham, CEM and founder of the Association for Women in Events (AWE). “From childhood, society has conditioned women that their place is not at the top, and has conditioned people to view women who seek to lead with stereotypes in mind. When interviewing for top positions, women need to overcome these typecast perceptions, in addition to proving themselves as the right candidate.

“The expectation of what the job will entail can have women excuse themselves from consideration because they do not believe themselves to be qualified. Statistics show that men more commonly will apply for jobs that they know they can do even if it is a stretch, whereas women tend to only apply for jobs if they can check off all the qualifications.”

Gooding knew that in order to be successful in growing upward, her leadership skills would need work. She hired an executive management coach after hearing from her sister what a difference it made in her career transitions. One of the greatest takeaways she’s found with the help of her coach is the power of listening.

“My leadership style shifts depending on who’s in front of me,” she says. “I listen, I read their body language. I decide, are they just looking for advice or do they just want me to listen? Before having a coach, I would always give my opinion.”

Gooding recognizes the parallels and differences that will come with her role changes. As much as she loves selling, what she loves most won’t change, and that’s the people.

So how is one supposed to know what groups are going to challenge you and push you further to C-suite roles?

“Being a member of AWE offers women an opportunity to immerse themselves in a community that seeks to inspire and empower their career growth,” Higham says. “By being a part of an active network, it motivates us to find a path up and continue to strive toward our goal, instead of settling for the status quo. Being part of a dynamic group inspires us to move forward.”

There are myriad women’s leadership groups out there, so don’t be fooled. Seek the ones that take you out of your comfort zone.