Overcoming Roadblocks to the Executive Level: What Steps Can You Take?

AnnaMarieValerioContributed by Anna Marie Valerio, Ph.D.

Have you ever heard any of these statements in the course of your career?

  • “You need one more job assignment in the field before we can promote you to the next level.”
  • “A lot of decision-makers in the succession-planning session just did not know your work or even know you very well. Other candidates had more people who could vouch for them.”
  • “You need to exude more executive presence.”
  • “You have been in staff roles in your career, so no one knows how you perform with Profit & Loss responsibility.”

If any of the above statements have been said to you, then you probably need to figure out how to overcome roadblocks to the executive level. Although many companies have learned that including women at the top is just good business, there have been many obstacles for women in the path to the executive suite. In my book, Developing Women Leaders: A Guide for Men and Women in Organizations (Wiley/Blackwell, 2009), I suggest that there are strategies and tips that organizations, managers and women can apply to women’s leadership development. Before explaining how you can be proactive in your own leadership development, it helps to understand the challenges in your path.

Leadership Challenges Differ by Gender

Women have only been in management in modern organizations relatively recently, i.e. the past 30- 40 years. Unfortunately, when people encounter situations that make them feel uncomfortable, they resort to using “stereotypes,” most often relating to gender, ethnicity, religion, and occupation. Some examples of gender stereotypes are “males are assertive, decisive, and autonomous” while “females are agreeable, supportive and nurturing.” In particular, gender stereotypes, often operating outside of our awareness, can interfere with seeing reality correctly and may lead to subtle forms of discrimination in the workplace.

Fortunately, these attitudes are changing. While leadership skills have historically been associated males, as more women occupy leadership positions and globalization requires more collaboration among people, people are beginning to recognize that leadership requires a combination of what have been regarded as typically “male” and “female” behaviors. The best leaders are both assertive and supportive in their dealings with others, depending on what’s appropriate in the situation.

Leadership is more complex for women because they must find the right blend of “tough” and “soft” behaviors to be accepted as leaders. When women show behaviors that are not consonant with their gender stereotype, they are disliked. These phenomena have been termed by researchers “The Double Bind” and “The Double Standard”. Research studies have shown that women’s leadership competence is often questioned and resistance to women’s leadership leads many people to be reluctant to have female bosses.

Steps Women Can Take to Overcome Roadblocks

So now that you have some insight into how gender stereotypes affect leadership challenges and the factors that may be operating when you are considered for promotional opportunities, what can you do to overcome the roadblocks that you encounter on your path to the executive level?

Learn “the unwritten rules.” In his book, The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level (Jossey-Bass, 2010), John Beeson describes the need for companies to articulate the factors that govern who does and doesn’t get promoted to the executive level. Try to obtain an accurate sense of how you are viewed vs. the factors your organization uses in making executive promotion/placement decisions. Initiate a series of career discussion with your manager and as many executives who are familiar with your work as possible. Work to probe in a non-defensive manner and sum up each conversation with the question: “What skills do I need to develop in order to foster confidence in my ability to succeed at higher levels?”

Attend to the Core Factors. Test whether you are in the right position to demonstrate the needed skills, e.g., strategic thinking, working across boundaries, and projecting executive presence. If possible, work with your boss to find ways you can lead in your current job relating to these skills. If appropriate, try to move to a new assignment that puts you in a position to do so.

Combine competence with warmth. It’s not enough for women just to be competent. Gender stereotypes abound and women tend to fare better when they blend expertise with friendliness and warmth. Find the right blend of “male” and “female” behaviors that work for your role and within the context of your organizational culture.

Develop your networks. You will learn more about your organization, feel less isolated, and have people to whom you can turn when you need information. Nurture your networks of internal peers, managers, and others who know your work. Grow your external networks that might keep you informed of opportunities in which you can apply your expertise. Join a women’s network as you will also hear about how other women manage to be successful, despite the roadblocks.

Seek out feedback on your executive presence. Executive presence may be defined differently by different people and in different organizations so ask people to describe it and give you some examples of it. Ask for candid feedback about how you may develop further in this area.

Hone your presentation skills. Often executive presence involves being a good communicator to small and large groups and may require that you obtain some professional training in communication skills.

Seek feedback on job performance. Women often do not receive job performance feedback from bosses or peers that could help them improve their work performance. You must ask for it. What are you doing well? What could you be doing better or differently? Listen to the answers unemotionally and thank people for the information. Because it often makes others uncomfortable to give us feedback, receive it graciously.

Seek high visibility assignments with support. Find out which job assignments are the “plum” ones in your field and the type of preparation necessary to qualify for them. Realize that this could be a multi-year undertaking involving hard work in successive roles with challenging assignments. Seek bosses who provide opportunities and supportive mentors to help you along the way. Seek out line management positions—or at least support positions in customer/marketplace-facing units in order to build your knowledge of the marketplace and strategic skills.

Ask for an executive coach. If you need to ramp up quickly or are facing a very challenging assignment, consider asking for an executive coach. Coaching accelerates the learning process and can help prevent derailment. Once used for remediation only, coaching has now become an effective method used in leadership development for middle and senior level executives.

Make time for reflection. Learning from observations and your own experiences will also require your reflection on what you need to do differently and what might be your next steps in the career journey.

About Anna Marie Valerio, PhD
Anna Marie is principal of Executive Leadership Strategies, which provides consulting services in executive coaching and leadership development for some of the world’s leading companies. Anna Marie is a licensed psychologist and spent more than twenty years in leadership roles in several Fortune 50 companies. To learn more about Executive Leadership Strategies, please visit