High Performing Women: How Women Reach the Top

18 September 2008 Dr Tara Jones

With so few female CEO's reaching the board room, what does it take for business women to make their mark? Dr Tara Jones and Mark Gittins of performance development consultancy Lane4 investigate the actions of high performing women to illustrate the requirements needed to secure the prize positions.

Recent research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has shown that women’s share of professional posts in organisations has only increased by 0.7% globally in the last six years. While the total number of women in the workforce has increased, there are still very low numbers of women reaching board level.

There is a mass of literature focusing on the obstacles facing women trying to move upwards within organisations. Rather than continuing with this slant, we have chosen to focus on the women that have reached the top and how they have done so.

Characteristics of high performing women

Women who have reached the top rarely perceive a glass ceiling and do not focus on obstacles in their path. This may be due to high levels of self-belief and positive thinking, as well their approach to work. For example, Coline McConville, CEO of Europe for Clear Channel International, says she got to the top by being assertive, never being afraid to disagree, and never taking no for an answer.

Self-belief may seem like an obvious characteristic for a high performer but research has shown that many female managers are lacking this. As a result, many women suffer from the so-called 'impostor syndrome', which leads them to feel they will be found out or labeled as unworthy of the success they have attained or the positions they have won.

"Self-belief may seem like an obvious characteristic for a high performer but research has shown that many female managers are lacking this."

In fact, academics Patricia Bryans and Sharon Mavin (2003) have concluded that many women are continually engaging in a process of discovering who they are as individuals and managers. This is important because research has shown that the development process for women in organisations is different from that of men (Vinnicombe & Singh, 2003). Men usually strive for autonomy and separation from others as a means of strengthening their identity. Women, on the other hand, typically take much longer before they can tolerate separation and see themselves as equal to others.

Therefore, in order to ensure self-development, it seems that successful women in organisations make the correct decision regarding whether to try and change themselves, or the management practices of the organisation. Often they have to change both and it is the balance of change that becomes important (Bryans & Mavin, 2003).

For example, Anna Catalano (formerly ranked as one of the most powerful women in international business) diligently managed her career by constantly reminding her bosses of her career ambitions and by refusing to be limited by others’ expectations of what women can achieve.

Flexible schedules have also helped many women achieve success. The long-hours culture is prevalent in the UK and often women who ask for flexible or family-friendly hours are seen as being unrealistic or uncommitted to the company. Few people question whether these long hours are even necessary. This is why many women are starting up their own businesses. They are not looking for a soft option, as they are working just as hard, but are just after greater flexibility.

Apart from a lack of flexibility, the other main reason women are leaving organisations is their dislike of the aggressive boardroom culture. In some cases, successful women at board level have reported having to learn to tolerate 'direct toughness' and have recognised the importance of not holding grudges.

Lane4’s findings on high performing women

Five women were interviewed regarding their experiences as high performers in the fields of sport or business. From the sporting world, the interviewees comprised an Olympic gold medalist rower, and a former Olympic, World and European Modern Pentathlon Champion. From the business world, a director of international SAP employment, a main board member from the leisure industry, and a finance director were interviewed.

Some of the themes that emerged from these interviews are consistent with those from the literature discussed above. The ability to balance success with other areas was seen as important. Surprisingly, there were few role models identified, but instead the women described several people as key influences, with parental influence considered particularly important.

The interviewees did not talk about specific obstacles in their careers but instead focused on opportunities and challenges. When they did discuss obstacles, one of the interviewees pointed to the importance of recognising that she had a choice over how to deal it: "If I had a choice to go round the obstacle, ignore it, or to move on, I would probably move on."

"The women valued themselves and their own contributions, and were constantly asking themselves what they could do to make things better."

When talking about their major successes, the interviewees referred to both tangible achievements, such as sports titles and financial growth, as well as less tangible, people-related achievements such as learning a transformational approach to their leadership and receiving good feedback from their employees. The importance of "making people feel special" was recognised as an important in their successful leadership.

Interestingly, the women internalised a lot of their behaviours and realised that they were the starting point for their successes. One interviewee stated: "Nobody owes me anything. If you want anything, go and get it". The women valued themselves and their own contributions, and were constantly asking themselves what they could do to make things better. These behaviours were driven by intrinsic motivation, with many stating a "love" or "real desire" about their work.

In terms of specific attributes, the women interviewed were self-driven, had positive mindsets and were prepared to put in long hours if needed. These attributes are not particularly surprising. What was clearly evident was that these women were extremely proactive. They genuinely cared about the people they worked with and were considerate to those around them.

These attributes reinforce the idea that you do not have to be aloof or confrontational to reach the top within an organisation. Finally, they were always looking to develop, whether through one-to-one coaching or by learning from those around them.

All of the women interviewed recognised the importance of having the right environment in place for success. They talked about an environment in which there is good communication, supportive feedback, social support networks, such as the women’s network, and in which job satisfaction is key. However, it seems that the environment also needs a certain ‘hard edge’ to it in terms of people feeling positively competitive and in which they feel everything they do is a positive contribution.

Conclusions and advice to women

There is evidence that women face certain obstacles when trying to reach the top within organisations. These obstacles seem to be exacerbated in male-dominated cultures, and include gender-related discrimination and stereotypes regarding what they will and can do at work. However, it appears that if women have the right mental approach then these obstacles can be removed or substantially reduced. The high performing women, described in the literature and interviewed as part of the Lane4 research, have approached their work in such a way that they do not perceive encountering any (or very few) obstacles or discrimination. Several of the characteristics they have (belief in ability, thriving on pressure, focusing on career, and internalised motives to succeed) are components of mental toughness, as defined by Jones, Hanton & Connaughton (2002), suggesting that mental toughness is a vital attribute of high performing women.

Overall, Lane4’s advice to women is as follows:

  • Have the self-belief to stay true to who you are - remember why you have achieved in the first place
  • Succeed for yourself, not for other people
  • Be proactive and ask for what you want
  • Grow a thick skin - do not expect any empathy or social niceties from colleagues
  • Network to gain the social support you need
  • Do not just succeed but let people know about it