“There aren’t enough women on boards. We need greater diversity at the top of companies. The glass ceiling still exists.”
We hear these things in the media all the time but rarely do we see any practical advice for female executives on how to take control of their own careers and put themselves in the best position to reach the upper levels of their companies.
“How do I get noticed by senior company management or by executive search consultants?” is a question that all too many female executives at mid-management level haven’t found the answer to, or in many cases haven’t asked at all.
Executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry assesses male and female executives every day across the globe and we have built a comprehensive picture of how they compare.
Our research shows that out of the 67 skills rated in leadership assessments, female executives outperform their male counterparts in 17, whereas males outperform females in just four, the remainder being broadly at level. Women are as qualified as men to lead organisations, they just come up short in certain areas, all of which they can develop.
By understanding what is most important at top executive levels, women can focus their development efforts in areas that will help their careers.
Think about where you’re going, and then communicate
It is surprising how many women have not stopped to consider what’s important to them and where they are headed. Even those who have an idea of their destination job often don’t have a clear understanding of what success in that role looks like or what would prepare them for it.
Women should talk to people in those roles, seek out individuals who know about the industry or function and find informants who can help identify experience required to be better qualified and prepared for that role.
Having thought about career progression it is just as important to communicate: ensure that the primary marketing document, the CV, reflects where you are headed. Take opportunities to talk to managers, peers and others in your wider network about goals and ambitions.
Women can have a hard time promoting themselves and there is often a negative correlation between success and likeability, which encourages them to stay subdued about their achievements. This is where advocates come in handy.
An advocate can be your boss, a mentor, a sponsor, a colleague, anyone who will speak up for you when you are not in the room and look out for you when there are challenging assignments and promotions being handed out. If mentoring and/or sponsorship programmes do not exist in your company, push for them.
Challenge yourself, but remain authentic
Women often don’t take on riskier assignments outside their comfort zone, which can hamper their career prospects.
Focusing only on a narrow niche is not a viable long-term career strategy and even if you don’t have a particular destination job in mind, collecting challenging experiences will always stand you in good stead. Volunteer for assignments that offer something new and different.
While taking risks by challenging yourself is helpful for career progression and encouraged, it is also important to remain authentic.
Male executives have much more confidence in their own abilities than female executives do. Building confidence is another reason to collect challenging experiences. If you need some time to build up your confidence, take a job where you can cut your teeth without the spotlight on you the entire time, perhaps in the context of a learning assignment or on a committee.
Whatever it is, do something that scares you a little bit.
Let go of perfectionism
Women often set incredibly high standards for themselves but perfectionism can often keep them tied into their comfort zone and reduce the range of assignments they seek, stunting their career growth.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook fixed that problem for herself by repeating the mantra: “Done is better than perfect.”
It is of course true that businesses, politicians and regulators need to do their best to create the conditions that will encourage a more equal gender balance at the top of companies, but women also need to take responsibility for their own careers, and taking steps like those outlined above should put them on the right path to achieving this