When looking at CEOs at successful firms across the country, one thing easily leaps out: the small number of women leading the charge. Though there are certainly major success stories — Mary Barra of General Motors, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo and Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin, for instance — the numbers are stark.
Of the businesses included on the Fortune 500 list last year, 21 companies have a woman CEO. That’s down from 24 in 2015. As Fortune’s Valentina Zarya puts it, “… To look at it another way, women now hold a paltry 4.2 percent of CEO positions in America’s 500 biggest companies.”
Clearly there are challenges here. One positive note is that there is an abundance of advice from women business leaders on steps to take to reach the corner office. Here are several examples of those leadership recommendations.
Sales management experience can be key
CEOs rise from all different areas of business. The skills that can be developed from the sales field may provide an extra boost in seeking a top-level promotion. In a story for The Huffington Post, Sharon Rowlands, CEO of California marketing company ReachLocal, writes that it’s important to manage a sales team “at least once in your career.”
“Sales is truly where the rubber meets the road, and performance is assessed more purely and cleanly than in any other management role,” she says. “In sales, you quickly learn if you have what it takes — or not. You hit your quota or you don’t. As a sales leader you’re doubly accountable for those measures because you’re responsible for ensuring your entire sales force meets their goals as well. In short order, you must learn to hire the right people and help them develop their skills, to set goals and to appraise people correctly. If you don’t develop those talents you won’t succeed.”
Just as Rowlands recommends tackling sales at some point in a CEO career path, other areas that may not be “comfort zones” can be beneficial. If the aspiring CEO has less experience in one side of a business, the knowledge that can be gained expands the repertoire, and could pay dividends down the line. In a story for Business News Daily, Nicole Fallon Taylor describes the journey of Angie Hicks of Angie’s List, noting that she was “an introverted college graduate with aspirations of being an actuary when she was approached about starting the now-national customer-review service.” Hicks, who says she was “really shy and quiet” in the story, dove into door-to-door sales, which she says was “the last thing I ever thought I would do.” As Taylor writes, Hicks “urges entrepreneurs to take that leap.”
“Don’t miss out on opportunities that come your way,” Hicks says. “Put yourself in a position to have those opportunities, know when one is facing you and take it.”
Alison Brittain, CEO of Whitbread in London, was ranked in Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women International list in 2016. She acknowledges the challenges for women CEOs in a story for Fortune, written by Laura Cohn. Among Brittain’s recommendations are to keep a sense of curiosity about the business, emphasize communication and build a strong support team. Confidence is another important concept, as Cohn describes in the story:
“It’s key to have confidence that the long-term strategy you set is right, Brittain said. In addition, it helps to have a thick skin because people will be talking about you and your strategy, and, she pointed out, it may not always be complimentary. ‘You have to grow a third, fourth or fifth skin if you want to be a female CEO,’ she quipped. ‘We are very rare creatures.’”
The pressures and stresses that come with a CEO position may cause some to become rigid, or less interested in experimenting. Jeff Pruitt examines “best advice” received by women in business for Inc.com, including Renee Yeager, CEO of Yeager Marketing, who mentions the ability to shift gears and try something new.
“I’ve received a lot of great advice over the years, but something that has always stuck with me is, ‘Always create room to explore,’” she says. “If our work plates are always too full, or if our schedules never have room to be a bit nimble, we will miss opportunities to learn and experience something new. It’s a struggle at times, but I often have to just stop and make room.”
Be willing to take risks
Aly Saxe, CEO of IrisPR Software, has a similar thought to Yeager’s take on being nimble. Risk goes along with that as well. Attempting new ways of thinking, and therefore going against traditional practices, can come with rewards, as she describes in Pruitt’s story:
“An advisor said to me recently, ‘Having a startup is like walking into a dark forest without a map and constantly bumping into trees. It’s your job to learn how to navigate that terrain.’ As a software founder in an industry that is slow to adopt tech, I often find myself throwing my hands up in the air asking, ‘Why not?’ And it’s because it hasn’t been done before. So sometimes you have to just walk into that forest, bump into all the trees, and blaze a trail.”
Get the right people around you
Having a strong support team is important for anyone in business, whether it’s mentors, family and friends, peers or hired staff. For CEOs, those connections can be crucial. Elissa Sangster writes about this in a story for Forbes. She is executive director of the Forte Foundation — which describes its aim as “to launch women into fulfilling, significant careers through access to business education, opportunities, and a community of successful women.” In the Forbes story, she says “Build a network, just don’t call it that.”
“All of the senior leaders we talk to emphasize this point: your network is everything, in terms of long-term career development,” she explains. “The term ‘networking’ smacks of good ol’ boys and smoky backrooms, but as diversity in business improves, ‘networking’ is no longer a dirty word. It just means building relationships with colleagues with whom you have something in common — giving, as well as asking for, input and advice from a community of colleagues you cultivate over time.”
Insecurities in business are natural, and most leaders experience them in one way or another. How we approach those doubts can make a significant difference. In Taylor’s piece for Business News Daily, she describes how fear is an obstacle for women in business: “These fears, whether it’s about being taken seriously, being inadequate or balancing work and family, often lead to a lack of confidence.” She includes commentary from Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, who notes that women at times “over-apologize” as a result of these fears.
“Women shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for who they are and the skills they bring to the table,” Parsons explains. “We need to come together and demand that we are given the flexibility to excel in our jobs. Confidence — and embracing being women, rather than apologizing for being women — is what will help women rise to the next level and climb the corporate ladder.”