6 Management Lessons From Visionary Women Leaders

From GM’s new CEO Mary Barra to Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, it’s been a good year for women in leadership positions. Here, we’ve gathered advice from six influential women to inspire your own success in the new year.

6 Management Lessons From Visionary Women Leaders
[Image: Flickr user Britt-knee]

It’s been a big year for women in leadership. Mary Barra just ascended to the throne of GM, becoming the first female in history to lead an automaker. Angela Ahrendts announced her departure from luxury British brand Burberry to head up Apple’s retail division. Marissa Mayer continues to apply an intrepid shoulder to push Yahoo’s comeback strategy forward. Others like Jenna Lyons, keep their focus on what they do best to drive their companies to greater heights.


We took a look back at our coverage of women in power and pulled together a select compendium of their best advice for either gender to lead a charge, in work and life.

Mary Barra On The Power of Really Loving Your Work

For Barra, a second generation GM employee, the success of the company is “in her blood.”

I have had many experiences that helped me grow and take with me a fundamental understanding of the industry and our challenges. I attacked each new position like I was going to do it for the rest of my life.

If you don’t address problems head on, they don’t go away–they get bigger. Get the right people together, address the challenges, and keep moving forward.

Every time I approach a new business opportunity, or a new activity, or a new role, I approach it as an engineer, as a professional, as a leader. My gender doesn’t really come into it.

Angela Ahrendts On the Power of Trust

Ahrendts presided over sweeping changes at Burberry that not only restored the brand’s luster, but propelled it into the Millennium with a series of successful digital strategies. She’ll be taking her philosophies with her to Apple, where she’ll lead retail starting in 2014.


When we sat down and said, “How have we created this energy? How do we keep 11,000 people so connected, so united?” And 90% of it is trust. There is an innate trust that I don’t second-guess anything [creative director Christopher Bailey][/creative] does, never have. And on business, he doesn’t second-guess anything I do.

We’ve never been finance first. We’ve always been instincts first.
My dad used to always say he can teach you anything but he couldn’t teach you to feel. And so that’s the hardest part when you have 11,000 people: How do you teach them to feel like we feel?

I don’t want to be sold to when I walk into a store. I want to be welcomed. The job is to be a brilliant brand ambassador. Everybody is welcome. Don’t be judgmental whatsoever. Look them in the eyes. Welcome them. ‘How are you?’ Don’t sell! NO! Because that is a turnoff. What we have wanted to do is build an amazing brand experience and an amazing way that people can engage with the brand. Then it will naturally happen. And then I don’t care where they buy. I only care that they buy the brand.

Image: Flickr user Fortune Live Media | Don Feria | Getty Images for Fortune

Marissa Mayer on the Power of Good People

Marissa Mayer’s cool confidence has inspired investors to get excited again. The company’s stock price has nearly doubled since her arrival in July of 2012 and the $7.6 billion Yahoo earned from selling half its investment in Alibaba helped fund the acquisitions of Tumblr, Qwiki, GoPollGo, Milewise, and others. So it makes sense that one area she’s focusing on is hiring. At one point, Mayer said Yahoo was getting about 12,000 resumes a week, roughly the same number as its current staff.

Hiring the right people, using them to build products consumers love, using those products to bring in traffic, and using that traffic to grow revenue says Mayer, “are a chain reaction, and they work somewhat like a funnel.”

I have said it would take multiple years…for the growth to be the way we wanted it to be. Having the right people and products and getting to the right traffic. People, products, traffic and revenue.

Anne Wojcicki on the Power of Integrity

The FDA leveled a blow to Anne Wojcicki’s genetic testing startup 23AndMe last month, when it ordered the company to stop marketing its $99 DNA test kits. In just a few weeks, the “most daring CEO in America” and the FDA became adversaries. As the dust settled, Wojcicki took the stance of cooperation–while sticking to her company’s mission.


The great loophole in all of health care is that you own your own data and ultimately you can direct your care. We’re direct to consumer not because it’s easy, but because that’s how you create a revolution.

I am highly disappointed that we have reached this point and will work hard to make sure consumers have direct access to health information in the near future. Our goal is to work cooperatively with the FDA to provide that opportunity.

We also want to make clear that we stand behind the data we have generated for customers.

This is new territory for both 23andMe and the FDA. This makes the regulatory process with the FDA important because the work we are doing with the agency will help lay the groundwork for what other companies in this new industry do in the future. It will also provide important reassurance to the public that the process and science behind the service meet the rigorous standards required by those entrusted with the public’s safety.

I am committed to making sure that 23andMe is a trusted consumer product. I believe that genetic information can lead to healthier lives — a goal that all of us share.

Sheryl Sandberg on the Power of Keeping It Real

Facebook’s COO and the author of Lean In continues to press hard to make sure Facebook doesn’t flame out. For the woman who once said, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s work, there’s life, and there is no balance,” is also famous for leaving the office at 5:30 p.m. to spend time with her family.

Likewise, she keeps it real with her boss, Mark Zuckerberg.

We sit next to each other, we Facebook message each other a lot. We give each other feedback every Friday. Remember that when I took the job, I was going to work for a 23-year-old with a $15 billion valuation.

Jenna Lyons on the Power of Nurturing Creativity

Annual revenue in excess of $2.2 billion and expansion into Europe is only part of the story of J.Crew, the preppy retailer that’s been elevated to cult status with its clothes on the backs of Anna Wintour and Michelle Obama. Behind the reinvention of the brand is Jenna Lyons, who holds the dual role of J.Crew’s executive creative director and its president. “No financial decision weighs heavier than a creative decision. They are equal,” says Lyons. She works hard to encourage the creative side among her staff.


When something hasn’t been as beautiful as it can be, the reason is always bigger than the thing. At this stage, I’m like a glorified crossing guard. It’s like, try to keep people motivated, keep the traffic moving, keep people from getting stumped or stopped by a problem.

When someone creates something and puts it in front of you, that thing came from inside of them, and if you make them feel bad, it’s going to be hard to fix, because you’ve actually crushed them.

Managing creative people–not so easy. A lot of emotion, a lot of stroking. Some people need tough love. Some people need a lot of love.

Nevertheless, she’s capable of cutting to the chase as denim designer Adriano Goldschmied discovered. “Jenna, every time you talk to her, it’s always a Yes or No, never a Maybe,” says Goldschmied. “I love people who have opinions.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.