Five Common Traits Of Women Who Reach The C-Suite

Although few women ascend to the C-suite, those who have follow a similar path. The good news: Anyone can take it.

Five Common Traits Of Women Who Reach The C-Suite
[Photo: Bernd Opitz/Getty Images]

If you believe the forecasts of the presidential election, another glass ceiling will soon be broken. While this is great news for women, the road to equality has been long and slow. Less than 20% of C-suite offices have a woman in them, and only 4.2% of companies in the Standard & Poor 500 Index have a female at the helm.


Fewer women are on the path to leadership because they’re less likely to receive the first critical promotion to manager, according to the Women in the Workplace 2016 study conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company. Those who do rise to CEO are more likely to be targeted by activist shareholders.

On the flip side, “These powerful women often reached the apex of companies because they figured out that effective leaders need a complicated but nuanced set of professional experiences and relationships,” says Joann Lublin. The journeys of high-achieving women are detailed in her new book, Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World.

Women who get on the CEO career track blaze a trail that can be followed, says Lublin. “Thanks to them, you’ll know what to do when you confront the challenges of the workplace–and equally important, what not to do.”

1. Have A Background In Technology, Math, Or Engineering

Your choice of industries can increase your chance of becoming a CEO. A number of the CEOs Lublin interviewed had a background in technology, math, or engineering. There’s a good reason: “Do the stuff that can be measured,” she says. “It’s hard to be discriminated against if you have a clear metric.”

For example, Diane Bryant became the highest-ranking woman at Intel after going into engineering. Her path there, however, was accidental. “A male student told her that she could make $30,000 a year,” says Lublin. “When she went to the career office at the junior college, the adviser asked her what she wanted to major in and she said, ‘I want to be engineer.’ The counselor asked, ‘Software or hardware?’ She didn’t know the difference, but thought that software sounded like something a woman could do.’”


Bryant became an electrical engineer, worked hard to rise through the ranks, and is now an executive vice president. Going into tech, math, or engineering comes with a caveat: “You are going to be the only woman in the room half the time,” former FirstRain CEO Penny Herscher told Lublin, adding that women “need to work harder, be smarter, and be more professional than the men.”

Be one of the guys, Bryant advises. “To be successful, you have to embrace the majority.”

2. Gain Extensive Line Management Experience

Women who become CEOs have extensive experience in line management, the roles responsible for profit and loss functions, says Lublin.

“Women often get sidelined into staff roles,” she says. “Those who were able to get cross-functional experience and could migrate back and forth became more well-rounded.”

The Women in the Workplace study found that at senior levels women shift from line to staff roles, while the percentage of men in line roles remains about the same. “By the time women reach the SVP level, they hold a mere 20% of line roles, which hurts their odds of getting the top job because the vast majority of CEOs come from line positions,” the study says.


“Boards want a CEO with a range of experiences, such as functional work abroad,” says Lublin. “Winning the highest job now requires a journey with more twists and turns.”

3. Don’t Be Afraid To Raise Your Hand

To move to the top, you cannot be a shrinking violet, says Lublin. Raising your hand can give you experience on a cross-functional team, but it might be out of your comfort zone.

Former Xerox CEO Ann Mulcahy, for example, got her first managerial role by taking the region of Maine, a largely rural region that no one else wanted. She had interviewed for several sales management jobs without being chosen. Rather than feel defeated, she got mad and continued to raise her hand until she got the role. By Mulcahy’s second year on the job, Maine was one of Xerox’s top-three regions.

“Sales had the purity of quantitative results,” Mulcahy told Lublin.

“Don’t be afraid of making people aware of the things you are doing,” Lublin says. “If you help the company be more successful, make sure people know who you are and what you do. This is different from bragging. No one will follow you if they don’t think you’re a winner.”


4. Be Willing To Take Risks

Several of the CEOs that Lublin interviewed were willing to take the jobs nobody else wanted, which gave them exposure.

“It often was something that needed fixing or the creation of a new business idea that no one thought would be successful,” she says. “They did it with an eye on making sure the risk wasn’t too great.”

For example, Ellen Kullman, former DuPont CEO, was asked to help start a new business for the company. “It was so risky that she was not promised money, staff, or budget,” says Lublin. “People told her to reject the offer. She couldn’t sleep. She knew it was a new direction and a chance to blaze a new territory.”

Kullman took the position but hedged her bets. “She asked for a get-out-of-jail-free card,” says Lublin. “She negotiated with her boss that she’d get a different position in six months if the business didn’t work out. It was DuPont’s safety consulting business, and it was a flaming success.”

5. Find A Sponsor

General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra rose through the ranks because she had a male vice president who was privately lobbying on her behalf.


“The GM executive found her to be a rising star, and she got a lot of operational experience and a broader perspective as a result,” says Lublin. “She had no idea what her sponsor was doing. When she got a message to interview for a new position, she thought someone was playing a joke.”

Finding a sponsor is your responsibility, says Lublin. “You can’t go up to someone and say, ‘Hi. Will you be my sponsor?’” she says. “You have to be a high performer, and have something you can bring to them, such as helping them or having something to strategize around. It’s a two-way relationship.”

Gain exposure by taking on various responsibilities, including those profit and loss duties. “Men who decided a woman had high potential,” Lublin says, “are willing to help because she will make them look better, and because she had their trajectory and guidance.”