Women CEOs on how they smashed the glass ceiling

Women are still woefully underrepresented in CEO roles. Here, four women CEOs share their advice for making it to the head of the C-suite.

Women CEOs on how they smashed the glass ceiling
[Photo: XiXinXing/iStock]

The number of women leading Fortune 500 companies in 2017 broke a record at 6.4%, or 32 women in the top spot at companies on the list. But when the 2018 list was released in May, that number toppled with just 4.8% of listed companies led by women.


“Women in the Workplace 2018,” a report McKinsey & Company and found troubling data well before women reach the top. Women earn more bachelor’s degrees than men, and ask for promotions, negotiate compensation, and stay in the workforce at the same rates as men. But, they’re also less likely to be hired for manager roles and face a bigger gap when it comes to being promoted into manager roles. For every 100 men promoted to manager, just 79 women are. And the news is worse for women of color. “Most notably, for every 100 men promoted to manager, 60 black women are,” the report found. Largely because of these gender gaps, men end up holding 62% of manager positions, while women hold only 38%.

Find the right fit

Until companies improve their diversity efforts, women need to first seek out organizations committed to diversity and developing women as leaders, says Stacey Caywood, CEO of Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory, a $1 billion global legal and compliance firm with roughly 3,500 employees.

“I think it’s really important for everyone, maybe in particular for women, to make sure that you’re really looking at an organization that has strong alignment with your own values,” she says.

Beyond finding the right environment to grow, women can be savvy about their own leadership development. Caywood and three other formidable women who landed the top spot at their companies weigh in with advice on becoming a top CEO candidate.

Grow strategically—and boldly

Good CEOs understand every aspect of a company’s operations, so your career trajectory will look more like a lattice than a straight line. You need to learn different functions, says Diane Dietz, president and CEO of Rodan & Fields, a $1.5 billion direct sales skincare and beauty products company with more than 700 employees.


Dietz herself is a good example. She held an executive role at grocery giant Safeway, overseeing all aspects of operations, and spent 18 years with Procter & Gamble, where she oversaw a turnaround of the Crest brand. Even with her vast experience, after Safeway was purchased by a private equity firm, she began looking for president roles before a mentor asked her why she was looking for “another number-two role.” That helped Dietz realize she was ready to think bigger.

“I think men sometimes are more willing to say, ‘Well, I’m gonna go for it.’ And sometimes they’re not even as qualified as the woman who is saying, ‘I’m not ready yet,'” she says.

Embrace risk

Taking the tough assignments—overseeing a struggling business line or managing an overseas assignment, for example—means you’re going to fail sometimes, too. But it’s important to own those failures and not sweep them under the rug, says Carol Lavin Bernick, former executive chairman of Alberto-Culver, which her family sold to Unilever in 2011 for $3.7 billion. Bernick is now CEO of Polished Nickel Capital Management, a private company with diversified holdings, and author of Gather as You Go: Sharing Lessons Learned Along the Way.

“Business is tough. Every business has issues and failures. If you can talk about what [standard operating procedures] you put in place to fix them, that’s big because you don’t want it to happen to others,” she says. Showing that you were able to move past such challenges and improve is an important skill for a CEO.

Raise your profile

Building a big network can help you immeasurably as you grow your career, says Dorothy “Dottie” Herman, CEO of Douglas Elliman Real Estate, the third-largest residential real estate brokerage in the country. When she was building her career, Herman took every opportunity she could to network with leaders. “I would pay out of pocket to fly across the country to be at an event if I knew that someone important would be there,” she says.


Don’t get lost in the crowd, she counsels. Make sure your senior leadership team knows who you are and how you’re contributing so they think of you when it’s time to plan promotions, she adds. You can’t be afraid to toot your own horn.

Caywood agrees. “If you have results to show, you should also gain the confidence to be able to showcase what you’ve done,” she says. “If you deliver or exceed the expectations [of] the team, you want to make sure that you are sharing that,” she says.

Be the boss people brag about

Another way to inspire faith in your leadership ability is to build a strong succession pipeline, Bernick says. Too many people overlook the importance of having strong successors in place at every level. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you’re so good in a role that you get stuck there because there’s no one to fill your shoes, she says. “Work on having at least two people who are superstars who could take your job,” she says.

And bond with your team, she adds. Be collegial. Don’t be afraid to share some personal details about your life. All in all, be a great boss. “When your team is bragging about your management style to other employees, that’s absolutely the best kind of validation, and I think people notice,” she says.

Find mentors who will push you

Each of the CEOs interviewed agreed that mentors were critical. Go beyond the established mentor programs in your company and seek out people who will push you, Dietz says. She again points to the mentor who encouraged her to think bigger than a president role. She encourages CEO-wannabes to find people who will say, “Do this. Try that. Push for this.”


Caywood says it’s also important to find “internal experts” who can give you counsel in specific areas or disciplines. Having people to whom you can turn with questions about an area you don’t know well is invaluable, she says.

Get board experience

Get to know what it’s like to oversee a CEO and the issues they face by getting board experience, too, Bernick counsels. Nonprofit boards and corporate boards can both provide relevant experience, as well as a peer group of corporate leaders who may prove to be valuable mentors and networking contacts, she says.

Reaching the CEO office doesn’t happen by accident. But by creating a long-term strategic plan that builds toward that outcome and selecting roles at companies that value women leaders, you can put yourself on a path toward that top spot.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites