Contributed by Alison Maitland, journalist and co-author of “Why Women Mean Business“
Amid the mass job cuts and wall-to-wall gloom, it’s a welcome relief to hear some positive stories about successful women.
Typically, such stories take the form of interviews with CEOs or entrepreneurs whose careers may or may not resonate with other ambitious women. Bring together the success tips of nearly 600 women, and you have a feast of ideas on which everyone can feed.
That’s what Aspire, a UK coaching and leadership development company for senior women, has done in its latest survey, Women Who Make It Work: The secrets of success for female leaders.
The women they surveyed, 80% of them senior managers and above, share tips on everything from navigating the old boys’ network to developing a clear vision. They are from a wide range of sectors, including finance, marketing, manufacturing, media and the public sector.
For those aspiring to the top, it’s useful to know that the 40 C-Suite respondents (Chairs, CEOs, COOs, CFOs or CIOs) rate their top strengths as having a memorable presence and delivering results. Next in importance is their ability to set a clear vision, and then to communicate powerfully.
When women reach the top of the tree, they still tend to stand out automatically by their very rarity. They will have worked on that impact throughout their career, however. Some women – notably the tall, striking-looking ones – are lucky enough to have it naturally. But others can acquire it by developing expertise that gives them gravitas and by playing to their unique style and strengths.
There are plenty of gems among the 50 “secrets” that Aspire collated from the survey. I’ve picked out a few that I think demonstrate peculiarly “feminine” leadership skills and challenges.
One public sector CEO spoke of making communication “personal and human.” She says, “I send cards to all new joiners welcoming them to the organization, do a weekly diary to all staff, have regular ‘question time’ sessions with my senior team open to all, and invest in a good internal comms team who do bottom up comms.”
A managing director recommends using “the natural empathy of female emotion to strengthen your position with colleagues and allow you to challenge in a non-threatening way…You’ll never communicate successfully if you’re not trying to do so in a way which feels natural and comfortable to you.”
It’s good to hear women increasingly emphasizing the need (and desire) to be themselves. For women working in male-dominated sectors, here’s some great advice from a senior woman in an electronics company about handling the old boys’ club: “Build relationships and influence one to one – it’s easier than facing a whole group in this culture,” she says. “Once you have peoples’ trust it’s easier to operate in the wider group. Never try to be one of the boys!”
What about developing “presence”? Another senior manager offers the following nugget: “In situations where you are unsure of yourself, or possibly intimidated by your surroundings, imagine that you are an actress playing the role of a confident, well respected woman and run with it. You’ll find that people buy in to that vision of you and never need to know that you were a quivering wreck in the loos [lavatories] 10 minutes earlier! (P.S. You do actually need to know your stuff though!)”
Finally, here’s an uplifting quote about how to set out your vision. “Imagine what you want the future to be like. Imagine your children/grandchildren experiencing the results of your current work in the future – what would you want for them? Develop a story. Keep telling that story.”