back view of woman with raised hand in crowded meeting

A few weeks ago, I challenged a room full of female financial advisors to consider stepping up into a leadership role. If ever the idea of leading crossed their minds, or if they were the least bit curious, I said, come talk to me about it.

Four women took me up on my offer. I was excited that something I said sparked an interest in them and that these four women stepped up. Still, I was discouraged there weren’t more. In a room full of capable women how was that possible?

In the financial services industry, study after study has shown the majority of leadership positions are held by men. This challenge isn’t unique to finance. While women make up 44 percent of the overall S&P 500 labor force, they represent only 25 percent of executive- and senior-level officials and managers in those companies.

Study after study has tried to get at why women are so underrepresented in leadership roles. I don’t know that any of them have truly solved the mystery, so I’m not going to rehash those findings here. Instead, I will offer my own unscientific observation on the subject: Women simply aren’t raising their hands.

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I realize this may sound familiar. It’s essentially the point Sheryl Sandberg made in her book Lean In. But that book was written almost five years ago and this problem persists today.

My theory? Too often, I think, we are waiting to be asked. And when we are finally called to leadership, we say no, without really giving the idea serious thought. Why do we say no? Out of fear? Out of a belief that we’re not ready today, but will be in the future?

To shed a little light on the subject, I asked one of my colleagues, Amy Sturtevant, to share her path to leadership with me. Amy is one of the most dynamic and engaging leaders I know. But that’s not why I wanted to share her story. You see, Amy is a leader who almost never was. That’s because when Amy was first approached seven and a half years ago with what she describes as the crazy idea that she should run a branch, she said no.

“I had never done it before and it scared me to death,” Amy recalls. “But the more I thought about it and about the fact they thought I could, the more interesting the idea became to me. They saw something in me that I didn’t initially see.”

As I look back at my career and how I became a leader, I can remember a few of those same sort of pivotal moments.

When I was asked to move from RBC Capital Markets to RBC Wealth Management to head up finance and compensation, my immediate reaction was, “I don’t know anything about wealth management!” Not long after I made that move, I was asked to lead the firm’s technology group. “Yikes!” I thought, “Now I am really out of my element.” I mean, I was the person who had to have my kids help me with the TV remote and my iPhone most of the time.

In each instance, I hesitated because of my own fears and doubts. Nobody told me I couldn’t do it. The only person standing in my way was me. I needed to believe that I could do it and take a chance on myself.

I needed to see that while I wasn’t a technical expert, I had other skills and experience to offer that made each move a good fit.

Amy Sturtevant offers this sage advice: “The thought of leadership may not occur to you, but if someone approaches you, they are approaching you for a reason. Don’t take it lightly. Just think about it before you say no.”

In other words, we need to get out of our own way.