Margie Simmons
Margie Simmons

I’ve come to realize, as a woman executive, that there is a danger of falling back on the metaphor “glass ceiling” as an excuse—'I’ll never make it because …'

In the design and construction business, we don’t believe in being held back, defined, or defeated by barriers—physical or otherwise.

We love creating structures that go beyond what others believe to be possible. We’re culturally attuned to overcome or work around challenges through strategic and systematic problem solving.

Being a woman in a business leadership role today requires the same discipline.

Here are some key lessons I’ve learned:

Forward (not always upward) mobility

Are you a “make it happen” person or a “let it happen” person? Are you actively alert to new opportunities and challenges, or toiling away expecting someone to show you the path or discover you behind your desk?

Charting a deliberate course, while being open to new opportunities and challenges, has served me well. Lateral moves or even taking a few steps back can be very beneficial to learn new skills, meet new people and expand career opportunities in the long-term.

The road to my current position has been long and winding and included an early start as a CPA, later as a senior manager for a manufacturer, and more recently as CEO of a growing architecture practice that is now part of the Stantec family.

Define where you want to go, and identify the steps you’ll need to take to get there. Commit to doing something every day, week, or month to keep moving forward toward your career aspirations.

Don't just talk about it, complain about it, or dream about it. Invest in yourself, and focus on your forward mobility.

Network outside of your comfort zone

Networking can take on many forms: Speak at conferences or industry events, publish articles, establish a following on social media, engage in community service, join a board.

Make a commitment to do one or a combination, but basically GET OUT THERE!

Build your own “brand” in your industry and community that you won’t get in the normal course of a workday. These are learning opportunities, and regardless of where they lead, you will inherently become a better, stronger, smarter, more well-rounded person.

Once you’re out there, don’t fall back into your comfort zone.

Strike up a conversation with an interesting panelist or speaker. Remember – they are there to network, too!

Also, network inside your own company, but outside of your clique. Who could you learn from? Who do you need as an advocate for your future aspirations?

Take a different approach. Be genuinely curious about others until you find common ground.

I’ve met many male colleagues who love to talk about food, wine, politics, the stock market, their families … the list goes on. And of course there is the one thing you already have in common — your own industry.

Control your fears before they control you

Fear is primal to all humans; it’s generally a healthy emotion to protect us from harm. But it can also be debilitating if you allow it to rule your life.

When making critical decisions about my future, whether large or small, I imagine the worst thing that could happen.

I also consider how I am going to feel if I don’t take the risk. Will I be sitting on my porch someday wondering “what-if?”

If the answers are yes, then I proceed with enthusiasm, because while 'good things come to those who wait,' great things come to those who go for it!

Don’t believe anyone who says, “You can’t …”

As I look in the rearview mirror, I was not always the obvious choice for some of the roles I’ve attained.

I’ve been told repeatedly by people who I considered role models and friends, that I can’t or shouldn’t or won’t achieve certain goals, roles, or responsibilities.

Those experiences were fuel for the fire that drives me. But for some of us, these words can shoot holes in our armor of confidence.

If you’re confronted with consistent negative reinforcement, and you can’t block it out, re-examine who you surround yourself with.

Be true to yourself and your values. In the end, you’ll be proud that regardless of the outcome, you did it your way, and you’ll have the courage of your convictions to help you sleep at night.

Big girls don’t cry

In both science and society, as sophisticated as we’ve become, we still can’t agree on how or why men and women are psychologically different.

Consider this all-too-common scenario: A supervisor is in the position of providing constructive criticism to a female subordinate during a performance evaluation. In truth, her success is also the boss' success, so a positive outcome is the goal. But, because of the supervisor's directness, the criticism feels very much like a personal attack, even though it’s accurate.

If you find yourself in this situation, try this approach: Calmly thank your supervisor for the feedback, and ask for a few minutes to gather yourself or take a restroom break. Then return to complete the performance review or discussion.

Never miss the opportunity to allow someone to tell you what you can do to improve. Help them be honest by taking your emotions down the hall, and out of the equation. You’ll get more advice, and more mutual respect.

To those who’ve “Made it…”

As women in leadership roles, we have a responsibility to share our knowledge and experience.  

Aside from just being the right thing to do, there is an important business case for increasing both talent and diversity among the ranks of corporate leaders.

These can be major competitive advantages, and in some cases, the only true differentiators.

This holds particularly true in professional services industries where the people delivering the service are directly responsible for creating a positive client experience and generating repeat business.

Unfortunately, many companies still struggle with tapping into diverse yet highly qualified talent pools. This represents a huge opportunity for any company in a highly competitive market.

If you’re in a leadership role, be bold, use your voice to have an even greater impact on the quality and diversity of your talent pool, and set an example for others to follow.

A recent analysis by Glassdoor showed the connection between an engaged, happy work force and stock value. Since 2009, a portfolio of its “Best Companies to Work For” outperformed the overall stock market by a whopping 115.6%!

In the end, I’m not opposed to using metaphors if it helps further the conversation. But if you’re aspiring to do more and be the best you can be—live your life as if there is no ceiling.

Don’t be held back, defined, or defeated by anyone else’s (or your own) barriers. Integrate proven and consistent behaviors into your everyday life, and there will be nowhere to go but up!

Margie Simmons is senior vice president and business leader in the buildings practice of design firm Stantec. Based in Detroit, she previously served as president and CEO of SHW Group LLP. Simmons can be reached at