Taking Women To the Top: Going Beyond 'Mired in the Middle'

3 min read | Susan Colantuono

Business person in front of a staircase, city on the background

In advertising, it's the transition from managing the client to managing the business.

In construction, it's the transition from managing the project to managing the business.

In professional services firms it's the transition from delivering client services to advancing the business by revenue generation.

In your company, it is likely the transition from managing managers to running a business.

women leadershipIn every company there is a barrier that has been difficult for women to cross and it's usually the barrier between middle and senior/executive management. Why is it so difficult? Because, as Marshal Goldsmith writes, what got you here, won't get you there.

For much of the past 40 years, advice to women has centered on important advice for getting from career-start to being successful in the middle. Advice such as:

  • Get a mentor.
  • Speak up!
  • Do a better job at self-promotion.
  • Engage your team.
  • Hone your interpersonal skills.
  • Network!

And all of this good advice builds skills that are taken with successful women who transition from middle management to senior/executive positions. For example, Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell's has had mentors at every stage in her career and Anne Mulcahy used her prodigious people skills with external customers and staff to turn around Xerox.

But if they had rested on this skill set, they would undoubtedly still be mired in the middle. 

Recently the Financial Times offered up career advice for women who want to get ahead:

"Some companies offer help. Accenture, for example, has a Skills Academy and a course, called “Move Beyond the Boys Club (Shameless Self-Promotion)”, that says career progression, especially in male-dominated fields, is a blend of aptitude and attitude, maneuverability, understanding office politics, allied to self-awareness and confidence.

It says: 'Women who get ahead are those who make key decision-makers aware of their wins. When you work with men, you have to learn to play the game and get comfortable raising your profile the way they do – we should take the best of what they can teach us while maintaining a sense of our own integrity, individuality and independence.'"

Yes, self-promotion, aptitude and all the rest is important, but here's what executives tell us they require before they'll risk social capital to sponsor someone - a track record of business success.

One recently said, "I won't waste my social capital sponsoring a woman who I don't see as a businesswoman."

So all of the traditional advice is good to get women to the middle, but it's not great to get women to the top.

Instead, companies and advisors have to cultivate a new set of advice for ambitious women in the middle. Advice such as:

  • Hone your financial acumen.
  • Learn the business of your business.
  • Take key operational assignments.
  • Enhance your ability to understand/set strategy and the role finances play.
  • Take global assignments.
  • Take assignments that put you close to strategy setting.
  • Cultivate an influential external strategic network.

When I asked a panel of executives what they look for in high potential candidates, the bottom line is that the cluster of business, strategic and financial competencies are the door opener - interpersonal/team skills and individual qualities are the differentiators.

Too few women get this message - maybe 2-3 out of a room of 100. It's why so many are mired in the middle. It's beyond time to change this! If you and your organization are ready to change the advice given to women...

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