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The top five lessons from female leaders

10 February 2017

The article at a glance

Women in leadership: let’s focus on how women succeed, not on why they fail. Why do women ‘fail’ to make it to …

Women in leadership: let’s focus on how women succeed, not on why they fail.

Smiling group of successful business women

Why do women ‘fail’ to make it to the top? The glass ceiling, the glass cliff, the burden of childcare responsibilities, social and cultural restraints? The issues and the debate have become all too familiar to those engaged in the challenge of finding a gender balance on our boards. Professor Sucheta Nadkarni, who leads the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Cambridge Judge Business School says it’s time to re-frame the question by asking ‘what can women do to succeed’.

Professor Sucheta Nadkarni
Professor Sucheta Nadkarni

Sucheta’s endeavour to understand the routes to success for senior women led her to the board rooms of the financial sector where she interviewed forty seven of the most successful women in the sector from 12 countries. In her conversations with these senior leaders Sucheta posed the question ‘How did you prepare for and overcome the challenges of reaching corporate positions?’ These conversations led to some fascinating insights in to the experience of women working in top positions in one of the most competitive and male dominated industries.

Here we share the top five lessons these women learnt on their journey to the top:

Lesson 1: Be authentic. Be unique.

When you read about women in leadership roles, you’ll often hear that women are encouraged to be ‘more’; more confident, more aggressive, more assertive. There’s a stereotype of leadership which women are often perceived to fall short of but the women that took part in this research have a different view. They have achieved their positions by being authentic and true to their own values. They have succeeded by being themselves and by knowing their own strengths rather than trying to fulfil an outdated stereotype. This approach has been backed up by research which shows that authentic leaders are trusted more and gain deeper commitment from their teams.

Lesson 2: Invest in yourself.

In this climate of innovation and change it is vital for all of us to invest in our own progression. The women who took part in these interviews continuously invested in themselves, but crucially they did this off their own back. There are a number of common ‘investments’ that were cited as particularly advantageous: signing up and participating actively with networking organisations, enrolling in strength building programmes, and getting a personal coach, especially to help guide you in high stress situations. The key lesson here is not just to rely on what your company offers you, but to get out there and make it happen for yourself.

Lesson 3: Seek out mentors.

Managed properly, a mentor can be a powerful asset to your career progression. The experience of these women centred around the proactive ‘adoption’ of a group of mentors, building a network of people around you that you can trust to give you candid advice and feedback. By seeking out and building a support network both inside and outside of their organisations, these women found themselves with an effective source of experience and wisdom to draw on. So the lesson here is to identify areas where you feel you need help and proactively seek out mentors from both your personal and professional life.

Lesson 4: Proactively take on challenging tasks.

Many of the women cited this as a key lesson that helped them progress. Taking on challenging, high profile tasks will help position you as a leader and someone who can make effective decisions. In particular there is great importance placed on taking up profit and loss (P&L) roles to ensure that you directly link your efforts with the health of the business. This does not mean that you have to limit yourself to purely sales roles but it does mean that you have to link your role to the overall financial stability of the business. On a personal level, one women assessed every project she worked on and produced a P&L sheet to translate her achievements in to value for the business and shared this at her annual review.

Lesson 5: Be persistent, but learn to say no.

Finally, there can be a tendency to take on too much when you’ve got your eye set on that promotion but this can back-fire and ultimately undermine your perceived ability to perform and progress. Many of the women interviewed placed great importance on their ability to be persistent and resilient but said it is equally important to learn to say no to things that don’t matter or don’t align with your wider goals.

This article was published on

10 February 2017.

Sucheta will be running the Cambridge Rising Women Leaders programme on 23-24 March 2017 at Cambridge Judge Business School. Find out more

You can also speak to Claire Wright to find out more about the Rising Women Leaders programme and what it can offer you.

Read a tribute to Professor Sucheta S. Nadkarni


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