What do successful women have in common? You think I’m going to tell you that they have magical multi-tasking skills, motivational genius, or maybe just a really great spouse. But the number one thing that successful women business leaders have in common is that they don’t let the persistent under representation of women in business deter them from taking a place at the table.
Today, women occupy just 4% of CEO spots at Fortune 500 companies, and fewer than one in five corporate board seats is held by a woman. The pipeline is improving—in recent years, the percentage of MBA students who are female finally broke a third, and 2 schools – Harvard and Wharton – are close to achieving gender parity. But we still have a long way to go.
As the scientist and inventor Robert Jarvik once said, “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.” Our conversations with C-level executives at companies all over the world have suggested a few other traits that distinguish today’s top women in business:
1. Know thyself. Trite? Maybe. True? Always. From finding the right initial career opportunity to identifying ways to continuously improve your performance, women leaders tell us that insight and self-knowledge are key. Not sure how to cultivate self-awareness? A Cosmo quiz or today’s horoscope won’t get you where you want to go; find a mentor, and learn to ask for and accept honest feedback.
2. Don’t be afraid to take a career off-ramp, but know where the on-ramp is, too. Successful women business leaders have often figured out how to make the puzzle pieces of life fit together. Childbearing and child rearing affect women more than men and the reality is that becoming a parent can interrupt a career. But today, when we have the first pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 company to look up to (Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!), working moms (and dads!) no longer have to pretend that work is their only priority in life. Find out in advance what your employer is willing to do to make it work for you, and know how to get off, and back on, the career superhighway.
3. Get help. It’s not fashionable to admit it, but getting the help you need, whether that’s a full-time nanny or just someone to clean your apartment can save your sanity (“We don’t judge; we just clean” advertises one firm on thumbtack.com, a local service provider site that can be a career girl’s best friend). One senior executive in the financial sector recently admitted to us that for years, she didn’t net a penny from her full-time job because all her earnings went to childcare—but she estimated that, over the course of a 30-year career, those zero-sum years have paid off exponentially by keeping her career on track.
4. Culture trumps strategy. Again and again, we hear from top executives that building a successful career depends on finding the right fit, and that means finding a culture that works for you. The job title, job description, and even the salary can take a back seat to the kind of opportunity that unfolds when you join an organization that matches your values and your passions. Go with your gut.
5. Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder. This is your career we’re talking about, not a junior high school dance. Research shows over and over again that, too often, women wait to be recognized rather than being proactive in seeking out recognition for their accomplishments. Successful women in business find appropriate ways to summarize their achievements and take credit for their performance.
6. Build a network, just don’t call it that. All of the senior leaders we talk to emphasize this point: your network is everything, in terms of long-term career development. The term “networking” smacks of good ol’ boys and smoky backrooms, but as diversity in business improves, “networking” is no longer a dirty word. It just means building relationships with colleagues with whom you have something in common—giving, as well as asking for, input and advice from a community of colleagues you cultivate over time.
7. Learn to negotiate. Susan Fleming Cabrera, a friend of Forté and researcher at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell, has found that women simply do not negotiate as often or as effectively as men, due to a complex mix of socialization, stereotypes, and bias. Top women business leaders know better than to leave something on the table. They also know that negotiation skills show up in your paycheck: Cabrera cites research demonstrating that only 7% of MBA women asked for more money during salary negotiations, while 57% of men asked the same. The result of that disparity? Starting salaries of the male MBA grads were 7.6% higher.
8. Don’t plan ahead. Successful executives advise over and over that the best career moves they ever made were the ones they could never have foreseen. What does that mean? Stay nimble, have flexible expectations, and don’t try to map your life decades in advance only to find that you’ve foreclosed opportunity.
9. Get an MBA. Many successful executives say that the MBA was a game changer for them. They gained skills and a network that put them on an entirely different track. As one recent MBA put it “In just 2 years, I got the credentials, confidence and respect that I might have never received just staying in my job. Now, with my MBA, I’m off to the races.”
10. Here’s a bonus: Men might take note, not one single tip gleaned from top women in business above applies exclusively to women. What’s good for the bottle is good for the can. In other words, when the workplace is truly free of the gender stereotypes that negatively impact career satisfaction, then we will truly have evolved in the direction of equality.
If you are interested in getting an MBA, you can attend a Forté Forum in your city. These events, held across the country from August 20 – September 6 provide an intimate and informal opportunity to connect with admissions representatives from top North American and EU business schools, get terrific advice, and ask all your questions about the MBA admissions process.