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Advice to the Woman Leader Aiming to Enter the C-Suite

What do women actually need to do to make the final leap into the C-suite?


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In our book The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By, one of our key findings in that all great leaders, male and female, are personally proficient in a figuring out and staying true to their goals, while learning,  growing and changing along the way.

Surveys of CEOs will tell us that the two main barriers blocking women from the C-suite are: 1) lack of line experience, and 2) lack of support for female advancement from the top.  These are certainly true. But even the women who have succeeded in the line organization and are supported by well-intentioned senior management can lose the struggle.  Research by the Calvert Fund’s Women’s Initiative Project, shared with me by Calvert’s  Amy Augustine , finds that a significant disconnect persists between companies that have tried to create structures and systems to advance women and their actual advancement into the top levels.

What’s missing?  A few things, but one I would like to discuss because it is within the individual’s power to change.  A woman leader’s own “personal proficiency” in dealing with the extraordinary challenges of entering this all-male domain distinguishes those who ascend from those who get stuck.  The female leader has to keep her internal act together while going about the careful and painstaking task of building trust and credibility with a group of guys who likely have a lot more in common with each other than they do with her  – and possible a longer history as well. 

If you are a woman reading this blog, imagine trying to truly integrate a man into your next girls’ weekend, and you’ll begin to understand the nature and enormity of the challenge! 

In speaking with a number of women executives and coaches to women executives (big thank you again to Ellen Kumata of Cambria Consulting for her wisdom and experience in this area), women who manage to gain the trust of the men they need to have faith in her are proficient in seven key ways:

1.       They keep their goals front and center. You can endure a lot when you know your purpose. Successful people in general view setbacks as speed bumps, not de-railers.

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2.       They know themselves.  The more the woman leader understands herself and her own predispositions, assumptions and reactions to the world, especially the male world, the better prepared she will be to keep her emotions and behaviors in check.   As Ellen observes “Women tend to think more broadly about business issues on both the business and the people sides, including the long term.  But they are not thinking broadly about themselves. They do not see their own potential; they do not fully comprehend the politics.”   Women who are successful in getting into the C-suite realize that it is perfectly ok to work the high end corporate politics in order to pull the top team together in ways that advance them to the benefit of the organization.

3.       They prepare for a stressful journey.  Getting to the top is not easy for anyone, and is especially anxiety producing for those who don’t fit the existing molds.  Successful senior women leaders accept that this is the case.  Accepting this also lessens the stress.  Women as a group tend to take things more personally than men do, and women who make it to the C-suite have learned to personalize a lot of what others do around them.

4.       They are willing to learn new behaviors and approaches that men can value.  Women who enter the C-suite have met the men there more than halfway.  Since they tend to have more awareness of the issues of difference, they are in a better position to mitigate them.   These women are investigative reporters: they find out what the burning issues are for their male colleagues, they find where those concerns overlap with their own, and they find ways to help  their colleagues  to succeed.  An excellent approach is to find a male trusted advisor who can give anthropological guidance in the male culture.  Smart women also ask anyone who will give it for feedback about how they are showing up: do they have “executive presence?”

5.       They tend to their own character and integrity. Learning and being willing to change is one thing. Giving up one’s personal identity or values for success is another. Successful women who maintain their stamina for the long term don’t give up on who they truly are even as they stretch to meet others more than half way.

6.       They take care of themselves.  Health and wellness, spending time with family and friends – the things we all know that we should do but too often sacrifice.  The more stress the leaders is under, the more she needs to take care of herself.

7.       They energy and passion for what they do.   They use that female emotional mojo to their advantage.

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Finally, I have to share a link with anyone interested in this topic of woman as leaders – starting as girls.  This was forwarded to me by Tara Cousineau of WomenInsight:  http://www.girleffect.org/#/video/  It is both touching and terrific.

If you would like to contact me, please email ksweetman@rbl.net. Thanks for reading!