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5 Do’s and Don’ts for Women to Get to the Top

There is no conspiracy to keep women from succeeding to the corner office, and in fact, there are developments that will likely result in an increasing number of women CEOs. Here are five tips for getting to the top…and staying there.

Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE), stepped on a landmine recently at a Wall Street Journal conference on Women in the Economy. Eschewing the value of diversity programs, mentoring, and affinity groups for the advancement of senior women in business, he insisted that stellar performance and delivering results are THE most critical factors in getting to the top. Urging women to “over deliver” and to not get side-tracked into affinity groups that he described as “victim units,” he struck such a nerve that some women walked out of his session.

One female executive exclaimed, “He showed no recognition that the culture shapes the performance metrics, and the culture is that of white men.” Another attendee asserted, “Of course women need to perform to advance…but we can all do more to help people understand their unconscious biases.”

While I couldn’t argue with the points made above, I have to agree with Welch. Based on nearly 30 years of consulting to global companies specifically in the areas of leadership development and CEO succession planning, this is clear: you deliver big, you win. If you don’t deliver, that steep climb to the top gets steeper and if you don’t pull out of the losing streak you may be in all the reasons why your results faltered just won’t matter.

You will most likely be unceremoniously replaced and parked in the margin. Then there will be a period of Chinese water torture with you clearly being out of the power loop and receiving little encouragement until you’ve finally had enough of waiting in limbo and you choose to exit the company. If you’re lucky — and haven’t decided to go entrepreneurial — you’ll land a big job elsewhere in part because you had a good story to tell about why your last run to the top got short-circuited. By the way, this same scenario holds true for men.

Sure I’m disappointed that there aren’t more women at the top – currently only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO – but I’m also encouraged. I’m encouraged because women are now running mega giants like IBM, Dupont, Xerox, PepsiCo, Yahoo, and Kraft Foods. Further, over 16 percent of Fortune 500 Board seats are held by women — while this number is low, it represents a leap from where it was a few years ago. Clearly we’re not going to see parity between men and women in senior business roles or on prestigious boards anytime soon, but decisions will continue to trend in a positive direction for women. Given conversations I’ve had with CEOs and executive recruiters, there’s no conspiracy to keep women out of corner offices or board rooms. There are no reflexive, “Oh, but can she handle the pressure” comments. There is less bias about women’s strategic thinking and business acumen capabilities. And, there is a growing respect for their effectiveness in managing high performing teams.

In fact, there’s a different reality that’s been emerging over the last several years as related to high ranking corporate women. In this reality CEOs are really searching for more top senior women and they want to populate their boards with them as well. In this reality CEOs are exhorting their leadership team members and human resource professionals to mine employee ranks deep in their organizations to discover hidden human assets, to accelerate their development, to track them carefully, and to ensure level jump moves that intensify both their responsibilities and visibility to senior management.

In this reality, savvy senior executives are weary of the gender differences conversation for they’ve arrived at the realization that they need it all. Whatever those historical beliefs have been about the behavioral differences between male and female leaders, these stereotypes are giving way to a new world order. I call this “gender-blending” and in this atmosphere, the questions are less about male and female differences and more about who has the total package – man or woman. In short, it’s significantly less about gender and more about who can drive commercial success in this global and ever Darwinian business climate.

I see a new breed of shooting stars in this 21st century business climate. They are distinguished from their peers —and often from their bosses, too – by a blend of cognitive and behavioral capabilities (e.g. peer collaboration, transparency, enterprise orientation). And some are triple threats in that they are (1) brilliant, (2) strong technically in the industry in which they’re working, and (3) confidently market-facing with instincts that drive business growth. Ellen J. Kullman, Chairman and CEO of DuPont and Lois Juliber, former vice chairman of Colgate-Palmolive are just two examples of female CEOs who embody these characteristics.

Back to women. When the business historians write about 21st century business dynamics, I believe they will say it was when women made their real and sustained move to the top of business organizations in every global sector. Like their successful male cohorts, they will succeed or fail primarily on the basis of their performance and results. We are at the inflection point now — C-suite roles are there for women. They are especially there for the women who have prepared for them and who can channel the inevitable anxieties and natural business instincts in a manner that abets their early success once they get into these roles.

One more point about women landing top spots – at least at this stage of the curve: they will benefit from the dedicated willingness of male – and female – bosses and other decision makers to place their bets on talented women. These people must remain committed to giving women the shots they deserve, and to helping them succeed by playing their supportive ambassadorial roles – just as they have for men. These bosses, these ambassadors may or may not be mentors – but they are certainly objective and discerning people with power who recognize stellar business performance when they see it. And they not only see it, they are willing to burn their political capital to get others to see it, too.

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen an increase in the number of senior women – super gifted women — included on the “short list” in CEO succession engagements. They have all had their individual differences, but I have observed some stunning similarities as well. These similarities distinguish them from other talented women – and men. So from the pages of my consulting/coaching notes, I offer five of these distinguishing factors in the form of leadership Do’s and Don’ts.

And one final comment: understandably there’s still a lot of emotion around the issue of work-family balance. Women must be wary lest this issue raises questions about their candidacy for senior roles. First, I urge a different semantic – work-family integration. As legitimatized as this issue has become, when CEOs hear work-family balance it connotes people working less — and they want their most talented managers working more. Second, women should avoid protracted conversations about this issue with senior management. For the most part, CEOs have the expectation that top performers will figure out solutions so that family life is not a distraction from their meeting business priorities.

5 do’s and don’ts for getting to the top – and staying there

Display “total brain leadership” (TBL) – left brain analytical strengths with right brain relationship capabilities and conceptual strength Be a “lop-sided” leader, i.e. integration of just focused on “hard” data at the expense of forming/managing key relationships OR, being focused on people at the expense of results
Form reciprocal working relationships with boss, other senior executives, and customers. Replace the question “What’s in it for me?” with “What’s in it for us?” Dwell on frustrations, lack of recognition or other disappointments. Stay stuck or resentful
Demonstrate exceptional strategic thinking and marketplace instincts Get trapped in “doing” or be branded as primarily tactical
Blaze new ground and manage innovation Keep “fixing” what is – OR confuse activity with truly meaningful results
Consistently set and reach stretch business goals Accept mediocre performers, excuses, or anything else that erodes accountability and delivering stellar results

About Karol M. Wasylyshyn

Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn, licensed psychologist and executive consultant, is the author of the newly released book BEHIND THE EXECUTIVE DOOR: Unexpected Lessons for Managing Your Boss and Your Career (Springer). She is the founder of the Leadership Development Forum and teaches at the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University. Wasylyshyn has 25-years of experience consulting to C-level executives in international Fortune 500 and privately held companies.