“Have you ever wanted to sit down with the exceptional women executives that have climbed the ranks and ask them how they approach work and life?” asks a new report by the International Consortium for Executive Development Research (ICEDR). The network of top companies and business schools interviewed 60 female executives on how they managed to break through the glass ceiling.
According to Lauren Ready, Director of Talent Management Initiatives and Marketing at ICEDR and author of the report, the goal of the research was to provide a career roadmap for high potential women by asking senior women to complete the phrase, “If I knew then what I know now…”
She explained, “If young women are going to rise to the top, they need to know the secret workings of the business world. We wanted to study the pockets of excellence, the women who are the exception to the rule.”
After all, she added, only five percent of global CEOs are women. The next generation of women leaders has a lot of ground to cover if we’re going to achieve parity at the top.
Diversity and Similarities
Ready said one of the things she found surprising was that, while the group of women interviewed for the report (“Taking Charge: A roadmap for a successful career and a meaningful life for high potential corporate women leaders”) was very diverse, there were distinct strands of similarity in the ways they approached work and success.
“We interviewed 60 women at 20 companies in 19 countries around the world,” she said. The report elaborates, “They are straight, gay, married, single, partnered, divorced; some have children, others do not. Some grew up rich, others poor.”
Nevertheless, the report continues, “During our research, one thing soon became apparent: the diversity of the women involved. There is no single profile of the woman that makes it to the top of a large, global organization.”
Ready said one similarity was that, “they were all incredibly proactive. They lived by the mindset of ‘own it,’ particularly in work life balance.”
“We know that companies are responsible for having an environment when women can advance, but at the end of the day, these women believed their key to success was the mindset of owning their choices. They were happy about their personal lives and their careers,” she continued. “It also meant reflecting on what they wanted to achieve, making plans, and diving in.”
“They seemed to see a career as an obstacle course,” she explained. “That’s different from when I was in business school, and many of my classmates felt stressed out about creating their career path. What these women said was that a plan is nice to have, but your career is more of an obstacle course. These women really enjoyed the journey.”
One of the most important things she took away by interviewing the 60 women was the importance of self-direction. “Most commonly, success is about knowing who you are and what you want, and doing what’s important for you.”
She explained, “It’s one of the things that sounds so easy to do, but in practice it’s not. You have to know what you want out of life, reflect on what you want to achieve, and take charge of it. That really resonated with me, especially as someone at a relatively young age – I just turned thirty myself.”
Finally, she said, she was inspired by how the women in the report approached life. “They had this adventurous attitude. Many had taken interesting twists and turns in their career, and they expressed that you never know how a situation you may be in can help you down the road. Put on your explorer’s hat.”
Ready had two suggestions – one for senior women and one for companies on how they could help rising women advance in their own careers.
First of all, she said, many of the women revealed privately that they worked part time but didn’t usually share that information with others. It would be helpful, though, for senior women to own this aspect of their careers, to show junior women and other people in their organizations that it’s okay to operate on a non-traditional schedule. “It’s important for senior level women to be role models. If they are out of the office, put up an away message. If they work three days per week, let people know. Senior women have to give younger women permission to do this and set the context for how things will happen.”
She also advised companies to provide more networking opportunities across corporations. “This surprised me. Since there are so few women at the top, I thought senior women would all know each other personally. But very few did – they really didn’t know each other.”
“It’s important for companies to create opportunities for senior women to connect,” she added.