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Great Female Leadership is Like an Elevator, Not a Ladder

An Interview with Anna M. Valencia, City Clerk of Chicago

I was first introduced to Anna Valencia as she presented her platform on diversity at Chicago Ideas Week - and for the second time as she rallied the city of Chicago at the 2018 Women's March. I instantly knew she was someone worthy of being featured as an inspirational leader for women and am pleased to introduce you to her here as part of the WeInspireWe community.

Anna has a presence about her that makes you want to stop and really listen, which gives her a major platform to stand on in Chicago and beyond as her career continues to thrive.

With over 10 years of experience in politics and government and a passion for mentoring young adults and first-generation college students, Anna has built a solid foundation for supporting women to rise up around her and make a significant difference in the lives of others.

WeInspireWe: So, Anna, you clearly have what it takes. Tell us a little bit about the path that has gotten you to being a strong, female leader.

Anna M Valencia: I attribute my strength as a leader directly to my parents, Joe and Debbie Valencia. They taught me the importance of hard work and compassion for others, which are two lessons that I carry with me daily.

I have also had a lot of mentors throughout my career who have helped to open the door for me. Because of the lack of female leadership in politics most of my mentors have been men, so I have made it part of my personal mission to encourage young people, especially young women and young women of color to find people who inspire them.

I often say “you can’t be what you can’t see” so it is so important to me to mentor and support strong female leaders for the next generation to look up to.

WIW: Wow! We are 100% aligned on that. As you’ve risen up and have created your own personal mission and leadership presence, how would describe your style today? And how has that evolved over the years?

AMV: I would define my leadership style with one word - collaboration. In order to get things done in any job, whether that’s in government or in the private sector, you have to work with people who might have a different opinion or life experience than you. That is why it is so important to bring a diversity of voices to the table to make decisions.

Along the same lines, I truly believe that the best policy is made from the ground up. For example, you can’t create policies around preventing sexual harassment unless you have women at the table. You need the decision makers to include those that will be impacted by the policy you are trying to create.

Making the transition from a staffer to an elected official helped solidify my leadership style. For so many years I was the person in charge of making sure things got done, a taskmaster of sorts. Now I am the person overseeing the vision and strategy for the office and get to trust my team to execute. With this new role, my leadership style has evolved to empowering my senior team to make decisions and get things done on my behalf. And it isn’t just my senior staff, it’s encouraging them to empower junior members of their teams to take on leadership roles within our office too.

WIW: That sounds like a bit of a “pay it forward” approach. How did you realize you wanted that to be part of your leadership style?

AMV: When I made the transition from staffer to principal, I had to be patient not just with my new team but with myself. I was so used to being the person that made everything run that I needed to learn how to empower my team around me to take on that role. I also had to develop patience in myself as a new leader that it was okay to ask for help and make mistakes.

I also had a personal moment that helped me to shape that into my leadership style. A young woman came up to me after a speaking engagement to personally thank me for the work that I had been doing fighting on behalf of DACAmented students and immigrant families. It was a really moving moment that helped me realize that, even when this job gets really hard, that it is people like her that I am always fighting for. And the people are what matter most.

WIW: Seeing the individual in each situation is a powerful leadership lesson and an important factor to keep in mind in leadership development. How would you like to see your leadership style evolve in the future?

AMV: I want to always learn from others. I want to continue to seek out mentorship and learn from women not just in politics and government but across the private and nonprofit sectors. Women face a lot of the same issues regardless of what industry they are in. We can learn from each other and help support each other across the board.

WIW: So true! When you think about women’s issues, including that of building a leadership presence, what does that mean for you?

AMV: Female leadership to me means strength and compassion, both to those we work with and to those we serve. Women need to see their careers as an elevator, not a ladder. Women in leadership need to be visible to other young women to not just hold the door open behind them, but to show the next generation of female leaders where the door is in the first place.

Women leaders come in all different styles – just like men. However, we need to move away from this idea that there can only be so many women at the top. Since there are so few of us in leadership across industries today, women must come together to support one another and help others reach the same level.

Men don’t hesitate. They raise their hand, they speak out, they don’t need to be asked. That’s why it is so incredibly important to create spaces where women are empowered to speak out – and continue to encourage that to happen no matter what level women are.

WIW: So, what would you say then to a young female beginning to develop her leadership style?

AMV: Young women need to know that their voice matters. My advice would be more for employers to know that they need to be intentional about hiring diverse talent. We are out there - we are not unicorns. Employers need to not only hire us but help to cultivate the next generation of leaders.

Thank you, Anna, for your words of wisdom, passion for collaboration and for carving a path out for the next generation of female leaders. We wish you nothing but continued success in your political career and can’t wait to see you join the ranks of your mentor, Michelle Obama, in history.

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