5 Pointers For A C-Suite Career
Continuing studies Fewer than 15 percent of Fortune 500 executive officer positions are held by females, according to the non-profit organization Catalyst.
Still, despite that sobering statistic of women leaders, women can adopt certain actions and attitudes that can make the path to the C-suite a little easier.
1. Take calculated risks
Learning to take calculated risks is a key skill for would-be female business leaders. “It’s thinking about the art of the possible and making sure that you’re taking some risk,” says Kathleen Taylor, the first and only woman to chair the board of a major Canadian bank (RBC). Grasp hold of leadership opportunities and “take the leap, take a risk — even if there are gaps in your experience and your knowledge,” she advises. “Focus on achieving the opportunity and then worry about what new knowledge you may have to gain.”
2. Find your champion
Taylor has another recommendation for women seeking a C-suite career — namely, seeking out a mentor, sponsor or champion, “someone who will put their own political capital on the line for your advancement, somebody who is really interested in seeing you succeed,” she says. “These are relationships that take a long time to nurture — they’re sometimes hard to find, but in the end, they make the difference between being promoted or not.”
Taylor herself was championed by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts founder Isadore Sharp who “was very interested in the advancement of my career.” She rose to become President and CEO of Four Seasons, even though the hotel business was largely male-dominated in the executive ranks.
3. Build relationships
In addition to having mentors and sponsors, Taylor also recommends building and maintaining relationships as you move through your career, a strategy that not every woman makes a priority. Professor Mary Waller, who teaches at the Kellogg-Schulich Executive MBA (EMBA) Program, believes that some women avoid investing in networking because the strategy feels inauthentic to them. She notes that women who have identified their overarching purpose in an organization are often more motivated to leverage their professional skills and leadership behaviours.
Even though some women avoid networking, Professor Waller believes that many women actually have strong relationship-building skills that they can leverage. She points out that female coaches tend to be much better at listening and leading people through a process of reflection — “that’s good leadership, not telling, but guiding.” As well, Professor Waller says women can generally pick up subtle cues better than men, an ability that can pay off when connecting with people.
4. Create a leader identity
Professor Waller believes that women still face barriers to the C-suite, although she says they are usually subtle biases rather than overt discrimination. Women may not be given the positive feedback and encouragement needed to reach the upper echelons, she says.
In order to develop leadership abilities, women need to be able to create an identity for themselves, according to Professor Waller. The ability to lead people “really rests on being able to engage in leader behaviours.” New leaders who receive positive feedback will often take a little more risk when the next leadership opportunity emerges, she says, adding that many EMBA programs strive to be safe places for women to try new leader behaviours on for size, passing by ones that really don’t fit them before going back to their organizations.
5. Build confidence and competencies
Daniella Dimitrov, President and CEO at Orvana Minerals Corp., is an EMBA graduate who found the program instrumental in developing her leadership abilities. She says the program encouraged her to put herself out there, bolstering her confidence, and enabling her to more easily reach out to her professional network for support.
Dimitrov sees a lack of self-confidence as one of the biggest stumbling blocks that many women have to overcome. She herself is a case in point; despite holding senior positions in financial services and mining, each time she moved forward in her career Dimitrov worried that she didn’t have the necessary skills to make the transition. As an employer, someone who promotes capable women and men, she says it can be tremendously helpful to try to understand why employees feel insecure, and then build their confidence “by giving them the foundation, the skills, the knowledge, the information, whatever it is, that is driving them to feel that way.”
Although Dimitrov didn’t experience any roadblocks in her finance career, she has found the mining industry a different story. “I have piles of stories from mining where I’ve had senior people tell me that you can’t do something because you have blonde hair and you wear a skirt.” She credits the EMBA program with helping her realize that “at the end of the day, if you have the right fundamentals and foundation you can make a contribution, and you can really be in any industry you want.”