Executive Acceleration: Learning from Industry Leaders

iStock_000008629094XSmallBy Robin Madell, San Francisco

The number of women making $100,000 or more has grown at a faster pace than it has for men in the United States according to The Washington Post, and Pew research has shown that women are the higher-income spouse in 1 of 5 marriages. Six percent of women earn at least $100,000, and as of 2011, the Catalyst Census showed that women account for 7.5 percent of executive officer top earners in the Fortune 500 companies.

But even though the gap is narrowing incrementally, it’s no news that women still lag behind men in holding top positions in these same companies, and are still paid less than their male counterparts. The perennial questions remain: how can executive women continue to break through these barriers and position themselves to change these statistics? And what can those who aspire to continue their leadership climb learn from other women leaders?

Sharon Hadary and Laura Henderson have attempted to tackle these difficult conundrums in their new book just released this month: How Women Lead: The 8 Essential Strategies Successful Women Know. Hadary and Henderson, who have served on advisory boards for companies like Wells Fargo, KeyBank, and IBM, shared their advice for how women can get ahead—particularly women execs in financial services and tech industries.

Banking’s Role in the Backlog

Catalyst data over the decade shows that the growth in the number of women moving into senior jobs has largely stalled. This is particularly true in certain industries. It’s no secret that investment banking is among the industries that remains predominantly male. Hadary notes that this is of particular importance to closing the income gap between the genders, because that’s where the big money is made.

“Research documents that on average, professionals in investment banking and hedge funds 10 to 15 years out earn two to three times the amount of money as professionals in general management,” says Hadary. “To have women excluded from these jobs has a seriously negative impact on women’s ability to build personal wealth.”

A new study released last month by professors at McGill University in Montreal showed that both the women seeking jobs and the firms hiring them had a role in creating the dearth of women in investment banking. The study showed that female MBA students were less likely than their male counterparts to apply to investment banking firms partly because they expected they would not be hired and believed it wasn’t worth the effort—and partly because the values reflected in the culture of investment banks were not perceived as women-friendly in terms of flexibility and inclusion.

Yet research shows that when MBA women do apply for positions in investment banking, they are as likely to be hired as men. In other words, says Hadary, the issue for women is their perception of the finance industry, not their actual experience of it.

“Both women and men are influenced by the stereotypical image of a successful investment banker as macho and aggressive—so women don’t apply, and the hiring or promoting manages do not select women,” explains Hadary. “Because there are few women in the business and no one to advocate for cultural changes to accommodate women’s goals, the environment is self-perpetuating.”

Therefore, Henderson emphasizes that the call to action must be to women as well as to investment banks: “Women have to become aware that their choice of what position to apply for is being unconsciously affected by their stereotypes of the jobs and the industry,” says Henderson. “If investment banking is truly what they want to do, they should go for it—and bring other women with them.”

Strategies for Senior Leaders

Six of the 14 women that Hadary and Henderson interviewed for their book were executives in finance and technology. The authors provided some exclusive advice about how senior women aspiring to become executive officers and serve on boards can enhance their leadership strengths within their respective industries.

Own your destiny. Establish your goals for senior positions and board membership, and define success in your own terms. “Like other highly successful women, the women we interviewed are holistic in their definition of success, incorporating all aspects of their lives: professional, family, community, and personal,” says Hadary. “It was clear they had built their careers based on their values and passions.”

Be the architect of your career. Seek out the experience to qualify for the positions to which you aspire. Henderson recommends identifying opportunities and positions to gain the visibility you need to advance further. “Make your own opportunities, and be fearless in taking on new jobs or assignments that you have never tried before,” says Henderson.

Advocate unabashedly for yourself. Make the business case for yourself, and share it with those who can advocate for you. Seek out people who are in a position to assist you in reaching your goals—for example, by expanding your networks of mentors and sponsors. “All of the women in technology and finance who we interviewed placed high importance on building and nurturing broad and diverse networks of mentors and sponsors within their companies, as well as in their industries and communities,” says Hadary. “They are strategic in serving in leadership roles in their professional and business organizations, on industry or community advisory groups, and on nonprofit boards.”

“There is the saying ‘the universe provides,’’ adds Henderson. “But unless you let the universe know what you want, it cannot provide! Let your sponsors and mentors know of your interest in serving on boards.”

Turn possibilities into reality. Be open to unexpected opportunities to become known to decision makers. “The most successful women have learned to stay open to the unexpected—opportunities that can change your business or take your life in new directions,” says Henderson. “Every one of these women also believes that they as women must not only reach forward, but also reach back to those coming along. They are mentors, philanthropists, and change agents.”