Stepping Stones to Success: Charting Your Course to the Corner Office

SuzanneBatesContributed by Suzanne Bates

While it may not seem like breaking news, women are still underrepresented in corporate boardrooms. A recent survey by the Alliance for Board Diversity revealed that white men hold 73% of the board seats at Fortune 1000 companies (up several percentage points from previous years), white women only hold 15% of board seats, and minorities just 13%, respectively. Are women losing what once looked like their corner on the corner office?

Why don’t women in particular have more of a voice in corporate America, and why aren’t there more in management or executive positions overall? The same ABD study noted that companies with more diversity at the top are actually linked to better financial performance. It’s no wonder, since they’re capitalizing on 50% of the population and 50% of the workforce – and know the importance of including them in leadership and decision-making.

As a female business leader myself, I know this to be true. While coaching executives and CEOs at major corporations across a wide range of industries, and I’ve come across many leaders, both men and women, who “get it.” We have certainly come a long way, but we have much further to go.

When I started my first career in TV news several decades ago, I was one of the only female reporters in a fairly male-dominated field. It was hard to be taken seriously, and it was very frustrating. It was clear that as a woman, I had fresh perspectives and different experiences that could have been an asset, had those qualities been used to their fullest potential. Women in general are a unique brand; they’re inclusive, communal, consensus-building, multi-tasking workers who focus on getting the job done by checking their egos at the door. We are the true definition of a “transformational leader,” and should be breaking through the glass ceiling at an alarming rate – but we’re not.

It’s communicating those advantages to the rest of the world where we often fall short.

As a woman, you can actually thrive through these economically turbulent times if you have the right stuff, you get into the right company that appreciates what you bring, and you stand out among the other male and female leaders of your organization. You have to be willing to step up, to climb the ladder even higher than you have already.

Here are five ways you can really stand out:

1.) Start by reviewing your strengths and areas for development. While it’s never completely accurate to generalize, the qualities you bring may be motivating your team, inspiring people, fostering teamwork, encouraging creativity, building a collaborative atmosphere. These are all very valuable, and will help you. Why? Because if you’re this kind of leader, talented people want to work for you, they do great work, overcome obstacles, and accelerate results. This is the key to a company’s success.

2.) As you assess your areas for development, consider that one area which may be missing is your ability to have a vision. Research has shown that female leaders are known to be strong in such traits as tenacity and emotional intelligence, but trail men in one important aspect: vision. If you find this challenging, do this simple exercise: envision a future state for the organization that would improve the business, align with the business strategy, and create obvious, tangible, measurable benefits. The real magic is when you can state that to your boss and senior team in 25 words or less.

3.) Learn how to articulate that vision for the organization. You won’t get promoted to the top unless ultimately people see you as a leader who can help chart the company’s course. Even if you have vision — it’s critical that you can articulate it. Knowing how to communicate up, down, and across an organization is the key to your success. If you feel you need additional coaching, make the investment. You may have the smarts and ability to run the company, but you’ll never get there if you lack the ability to illustrate your expertise to the right audiences.

4.) Create open and effective networks in order to become better known. Understanding the importance of making key contacts internally in your organizations as well as externally is vital. Women need to take more risks and learn to be more strategic in terms of career growth. Using mentoring effectively is another tool to help you get your name and talents known to the right people.

5.) Learn to navigate the politics of your organization or company. Don’t shy away from understanding who is influential, who can help you, and who can hurt you. This is all part of working in the world of leadership. Educate yourself, find mentors, learn everything you can, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. You can’t move to the corner office if you are naive about corporate politics. Put your big girl pants on and be a player.

If you follow these rules, you’ll make a name for yourself inside your company, and to your external audiences, too. News travels fast in business circles. Don’t get frustrated about where you are, and focus on where you’re going. Identifying your own brand – what makes you the unique leader you are – is critical. Then, you just have to let the rest of the world know.

Suzanne Bates is an executive coach, keynote speaker, former award-winning television news anchor, and CEO of Bates Communications, Inc.  The firm improves its clients’ businesses by transforming leaders into powerful communicators who get business results.  Clients include: Dow Chemical, Fidelity, Mellon/Bank of NY, John Hancock, VF Outdoor, Cabot Corp., Sun Life, EMC, Blue Cross Blue Shield, The North Face, and Stop and Shop.  Suzanne Bates is also author of the best-selling business books “Speak Like A CEO,”  “Motivate Like A CEO,” and the upcoming “Discover Your CEO Brand” (due out Fall, 2011).