What makes women successful in business? What can we learn from the high profile success stories that are out there? I have tried to codify the lessons learned by women like Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon Products, Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson Publishing, and Meg Whitman, former President & CEO of eBay, the advice of high-profile female entrepreneurs like Barbara Corcoran, Bobbi Brown, and Muriel Siebert, along with my own experience gleaned from 20 years of coaching female talent.
Rule #1: Trust Your Instincts
“Women often don't trust their instincts—and spend way too much time trying to provide endless analysis for why,” says Geraldine Laybourne, creator of the Oxygen network. “A good idea takes fewer pages.”
One of our best assets as women business leaders is our instinct. Listen to your gut. You don’t need to present 100 pages of analysis, charts and graphs to explain why you know it is “the right thing” to do. The masculine way of working often belittles or de-values decisions made based on intuition. But what the business world calls “intuition” or “gut instinct” is really simply a way of describing how a feminine mind works. Whether your conscious mind is aware of it or not, we are constantly seeing things, analyzing, interpreting data.
Women, in particular, are adept at integrating all the data perceived by our subconscious mind, processing it quickly and often times non-linearly and spotting the trends, relationships and connections. A woman is good at putting her finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Leverage this ability!
Rule #2: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway!
Ina Garten, "The Barefoot Contessa," offers her best advice to women. “Be willing to jump off the cliff and figure out how to fly on the way down.” I was once told by a mentor that if I didn’t feel in over my head when I started a new job, I hadn’t made the right career move.
Men and women have inherited some evolved traits. In prehistoric days, the men that were risk-takers (those that lived) would have brought home more food and defended their families better. Women were expected to “play it safe” by staying close to home and watching over the children. Over time, we have evolved. The world currently demands that both sexes display "feminine" and "masculine” behaviors.
Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us.” The best advice I can give women in business is to learn how to manage their self-talk so it doesn’t paralyze them and keep them from taking calculated risks. Self-talk is that ongoing, internal dialogue that either supports or sabotages. Leading behavioral researchers have stated that up to 77 percent of everything we think is negative. Women, in particular, need to reprogram the voice so it realistically supports them and allows them to choose to take action even in the face of fear.
Rule #3: Gain Confidence Through Failure
Failing and surviving gives you confidence. However, women tend to be a little more emotional about failing. When men fail at something, they tend to attribute it to some external cause, like the challenge was impossible, or they didn’t get enough support from their boss. When women fail, the tendency is to attribute the bad result to some personal inadequacy. Recognize that failures do occur, take responsibility for your part, reflect and identify the factors that contributed, take inventory of any behavioral shortcomings, forgive yourself and move on.
Winston Churchill once defined success as “going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” The fear of failure is probably the number one problem holding people back from the success they desire and deserve. Andrea Jung, President and CEO of Avon Products was passed over for the CEO position in 1997, but finally promoted in 1999. Ellen Hancock, once IBM's highest-ranking woman, was fired by Lou Gerstner and later, at Apple, by Steve Jobs. She became CEO of Exodus.
View failure as an opportunity to learn. With learning comes wisdom. With wisdom comes confidence.
Rule #4 Watch Out for the Glass Cliff
Exeter academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam have been investigating what they call the “glass cliff ” phenomenon, which shows that women are more likely to accept high risk opportunities that their male counterparts avoid. Sometimes women are viewed as dispensable, sometimes organizations are truly hopeful that these talented women can perform miracles, and sometimes the women simply don’t see the risk.
Either way, women need to be politically savvy about how they respond when opportunities are presented to them. Don’t be too quick to say “yes” when a challenging assignment comes along. Don’t feel you have less to loose than your male counterparts. Failure is an opportunity to learn, but too many visible, money-losing failures are career limiting! Take some time to assess the situation carefully. Is it a stretch assignment? Or a set up? Don’t be seduced by the title or the trappings of the job. Ask plenty of questions including, “Why me?” and ”Why now?” Ask for the resources you will need in order to pull it off: money, time, headcount and support. Don’t try to be superwoman!
Rule #5: Be Yourself, But Be the Best Self You Can Be
This advice is given by Jessica Miller, co-author of A Woman's Guide to Successful Negotiating, about flexing your negotiation style: “You must be authentic or you'll lose all credibility.” The same holds true for being a successful businesswoman or leader. Know your unique strengths and leverage these to support your success.
Tom Peters has said, "The lessons I learned in business all point to one broad truth: Success follows when you use what you've got. You will succeed because of, not in spite of, your personal traits. The trick is to make your aptitude and flair work for you in a style that is uniquely yours." I find many women trying to emulate a masculine style—which is not their authentic way of leading. Be courageous enough to be yourself.
Rule #6: A Good Idea Alone Is Not Enough
Research has proven that women are either the primary buyer, or influence the majority of purchases, for the home and business. Yet, ideas presented by female managers and executives sometimes still get treated with less respect than men’s ideas.
Why? Because there are a lot of great ideas out there! A good idea is not enough. You must know how to brand, market and sell the idea to others. Often, when we fail to get our idea heard, we assume it must be a faulty idea. It isn’t that the idea is bad (it is often spot on!) but that we don’t do an effective job of pitching our idea to our stakeholders. Women often offer the justification, “It’s the right thing to do,” when what stakeholders want to hear is, “It will work!” One of the key skills I believe a woman needs in order to survive and thrive in business is the ability to sell. Everyone sells. Some people sell ideas, some sell services, and some sell products. Some sell within an organization, others sell to external clients.
"I'm a salesperson," Larissa Herda, chairman and chief executive officer of Time Warner Telecom Inc., says. "I personally think sales skills are some of the best skills an executive can have because at the end of the day you're selling to everyone: You're selling your vision to your employees, you're selling to your board, to your investors, to customers."
Rule #7: Leverage the Feminine Management Style
We are in the relationship era: It's all about getting close to customers, striking up joint ventures, partnering with suppliers, says Katherine D'Urso, Director of Marketing, Field Operations at Coopers & Lybrand. Women are great at relationships.
"A company is an organic, living, breathing thing, not just an income sheet and balance sheet," says former Hewlett-Packard Chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina. The feminine style of nurturing is becoming more acceptable.
Of course, the best leaders, regardless of gender, have a combination of both masculine and feminine energies. However, it is my experience that many professional women have been taught to downplay the feminine approach.
Sung-Joo Kim, chairman and chief executive of luxury-goods company MCM Worldwide strives to prove that femininity and power aren’t mutually exclusive. She says she leans heavily on motherhood and seeks to run her business with “heart.”
Today's business environment calls for feminine traits, including being great communicators, consensus-builders, community builders, collaborators and connectors. I echo Katherine’s D’Urso’s sentiments when she says, “The power that a woman has when she has the courage to be a woman is mighty!”
Rule #8: Be Willing to Take a Step Down to Move Up
Because we have fought so hard to break through the glass ceiling, we are often afraid to take what feels like a backward step.
Christina Gold, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Western Union Company has at times in her 35-year career taken a step down the corporate ladder in order to learn skills that her advancement had allowed her to skip. "I had never supervised large groups of people," she said. "I was a manager, so I went back to being a supervisor so I could learn to manage a group of 30 or 40 or 50 people.”
Donna Dubinsky, co-founder of Palm and Handspring, met her business partner Hawkins when she was freshly back in the U.S. after a year's sabbatical in France. For a year she studied French, tried painting ("I was terrible," she says), and taught school. "I came back wanting to be CEO of a company."
Brenda Barnes, shocked the business world in 1998 when she left PepsiCo to spend more time with her family. She had been pegged as PepsiCo's first female head and her move seemed foolish to many. She later became President of Sarah Lee.
Taking a position with a lower grade or title in order to get Profit & Loss experience makes sense if you want to lead a business unit one day. Be willing to take nonlinear career paths to grow as a person and a business leader.
Rule #9: Re-frame the Way You View Power
"Power is the ability to change things.” says Carly Fiorina. Many women have shied away from power because they have viewed power traditionally as “power over” someone or some thing. Men and women do not view power in the same way. To most men, power tends to be about authority as measured by titles, perks, and pay. To highly successful women, power is about "influence.”
In order to make a difference in business, you must be seen to be influential and part of the inner circle of decision-makers. If you reframe power as the ability to get things done, being powerful becomes palatable.
Shirley Franklin, former mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, said, “I was always someone in the background, willing to work on the team, not step up. I didn't run for class president. I didn't seek high office at any stage in my life until I was in my 50s, and then I did so very reluctantly.”
Shirley was the 58th mayor of Atlanta, the first female to hold the post and the first black woman to be elected mayor of any major Southern city in the U.S. Shirley shied away from power until midlife. Just think of all the good she could have done and all the difference she could have made had she embraced the concept of power! But power as defined by women, power used wisely, and power to make a difference all have impact and can enable positive change in the world.
Rule #10: Find Yourself a Publicist
Research shows that men are promoted based on potential while women are judged on their track record. If your accomplishments are not visible to others, opportunities are not likely to come your way. However, experiments have demonstrated that when women highlight their accomplishments—that’s a turn-off. This creates a huge challenge for ambitious women. If they’re self-effacing, decision-makers and talent spotters find them unimpressive, but if they talk up their accomplishments, they come across as pushy.
The answer lies in finding subordinates, colleagues and mentors who will promote your successes for you. If you nurture subordinates, they will become your biggest supporters. If you make a special effort to speak about the accomplishments of your colleagues, many of them will return the favor (yes, I know that some will never pay you back, but karma will take care of that!). And of course, we all know how important it is to find mentors in the business who will not only advise us but who will actively promote us. A great mentor will sing your praises, talk about your strengths and accomplishments and be your biggest fan.
But what if you can’t seem to find the right mentor? Or any mentor?
Harriet Rubin, author of the bestselling The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women and The Mona Lisa Stratagem: The Art of Women, Age, and Power has the following words of advice: “Two of my heroes, Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Eleanor Roosevelt, never had mentors. They engaged the best teacher in the world: namely, the world itself.”
About the Author
Michelle Brailsford is a founding partner at Jupiter Consulting Group, LLC, a boutique learning & development consultancy dedicated to ADDING life BACK INTO work. Contact