9 questions women need to ask themselves to take them to the top as business leaders

Mar 4th, 2021

9 questions women need to ask themselves to take them to the top as business leaders

 “There is no force more powerful than a woman determined to rise.” W.E.B. Dubois

A recent International Labour Organisation survey of 13,000 companies in 70 countries shows that companies that promote equal opportunities and gender-inclusive cultures are 60% more likely to improve their profits, enhance their reputation, attract and retain talent, and have greater creativity and innovation. Even so, over half of the companies surveyed had less than 30% women managers and only 21.7% had women CEOs.


Progress has been made, with the 30% club reporting that the FTSE 100, 250 and 350 all have over 30% women represented on boards.  And I continue to see a rise in the number of women I coach.


Many bright, talented women have the competences they need to get to the top but are often held back by a system or industry that is not adapting quickly enough, or because they lack the personal confidence and clarity on how they can influence a successful career path.


Confidence is often built early, particularly if you have strong female role models.   I lost my father when I was 6 and was fortunate to have a remarkable mother, who instilled in all of her 4 children a belief that we could do or become anything we wanted.   This is a belief that I wish to instil in women, and indeed all my clients, through my own practice as an executive coach.


I have been working with a woman who became COO of a global professional services company just before Covid 19. This was a big leap for her and she naturally felt nervous.  Building a competent and agile team and winning the trust of CEOs in different countries to influence strategy and decision making was key, and a recent performance review acknowledged that she had exceeded all expectations. Above all, her confidence has soared and she feels clearer about her true potential, knowing what she wants and being able to ask for it, openly expressing her belief that she has the ability and the ambition to take on a CEO role herself. Today, she is boldly driving and influencing her own career path.


The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChoosetoChallenge and, as well as challenging themselves to go after what they want, it is essential for women – and men – to challenge the system and organisations they work in.   I am often surprised at the lack of men on panels at Women’s Day events.  For me, their voice is necessary at events like this to bring about change. It is also necessary in business and many men are making that a reality. A CEO client, having worked overseas in multi-cultural teams, has recently returned to the UK to take up a new role in the finance sector. He has been shocked at the lack of women in management roles and observed behaviour, banter and language that for him do not represent his values. He recognised, as the ILO survey has shown, that his company has a real need for diversity at the leadership level to open up to new ideas and ways of working and he sees this as a major priority of his role.


Are you a talented woman with the drive and ambition to succeed, but who can feel uncertain or held back by the system, or your own fears? Are you sure you could make it to the top, if only you had the right network or support? If so, asking yourself these questions may be useful.


1.  Are you clear on your ambitions and know what you want?

To get where you want to go, you first need to be really clear on where that is, from career ambitions to what makes you happy in your personal and family life. A client in the property sector had left a senior corporate role to set up her own business but still felt unfulfilled.  She took part in our Vision intensive Day and, during this one-to-one retreat, she was able to dig deep down and discover who she was, recognising that her personal life was a big priority too. She felt more confident because she was clearer on what she wanted from life and the kind of work that was in line with her values.


2. Do others know about your ambitions so opportunities are presented to you? 

Women sometimes hold back on expressing what they want directly and assume that, having mentioned it once, people are clear.  A client was preparing for her performance review, having had an excellent year, and I knew her ambition was to be on the board.  When I asked her if her boss was aware of her ambition, she responded “I think so”.  Express your ambitions and make specific requests, otherwise you may find others being promoted and that can lead to feeling resentful.  So, if you want to be on the Board, say so and ask what it will take for you to get there.


3.  Is your voice the one that people wait to hear at meetings?

When you have impact, people will listen.  Prepare for meetings by knowing what your top three messages are and be succinct when you deliver them. Use ‘muscular’ language like “I recommend” vs “I think”.  Practise breathing to influence your pace and the tone of your voice so you sound measured, calm and have gravitas.

Several clients have reported that on-line meetings have created more equality with no hierarchy or positioning around a table, so make the most of this opportunity and ask insightful questions that impact and influence a productive discussion.  Who can forget the inspiring example of how Jackie Weaver exerted her influence and leadership in an online meeting with Handforth Parish Council that went viral?


4.  Do senior colleagues talk about your success?

It is so important to build a network of people who will champion you to help you move ahead, especially if you are aiming for the C-suite. One of my clients in the banking industry has built a successful career based on competence and now recognises that she needs to widen her influence. She knows the impact she can have as a leader in technology but hesitates to speak out about her successes. We are working to build her profile internally and externally, ensuring that those successes are being communicated in an authentic way by her and other influencers who sponsor her career growth.  As Sylvia Anne Hewlett outlines in her book, Forget a Mentor – Find a Sponsor.


5.  Is your impact wider than your role?

If not, consider taking on a cross-business project, so that you have a new audience for your impact and can build your profile within and outside your own department and your organisation. Think about where you could speak, who you want to get to know and how you could help others. It’s important to remember that influence and networks are a two-way street. The person you help out today with a contact or a piece of advice could lead you to a new opportunity tomorrow.


6.  Do you use your influence and offer your support to help other women succeed?

An executive spoke of how shocked she was when, shortly after she was promoted, a male colleague who had wanted the same role, endeavoured to use the context of a conference call with members of his powerful network to influence for certain of her functions be transferred to him. She was astute enough to question him effectively during the meeting and prevent the transfer, but was astounded that the attempt was allowed to happen in the first place.  She makes a point of being a voice for fairness and equality in a culture and industry working on its diversity by sitting on D & I panels.  She also mentors younger women who may not yet have her level of confidence to influence a system that needs to be changed.


7.  Do you have good support structures at home and work?

Women still tend to take on more at home and in family life than men; we are often carers, juggling work with other responsibilities. It is essential to clarify roles and plan at home and at work. When working with women executives, I often arrange a meeting with their EA to see what can be delegated. This involvement always empowers the EA as a central member of a team with a strong purpose for success, creating an aligned plan to help the executive manage her different roles.


8.  Do you have time for you to switch off and energise?

It may be running, Pilates or painting, but you know what restores and energises you. And having a healthy mind-set is key so introduce a short, simple practice at the start of every day to calm the mind – whether that is a short meditation or walking the dogs.  Beginning every day with something that nourishes you will build resilience and enable you to think clearly.


9.  Are you achieving your way, by being you?

Women, particularly those in male-dominated industries, may feel they need to assume a more ‘masculine’ demeanour, emphasising toughness rather than their natural qualities. It is important to remain yourself, because that is when you have more influence, both over your own future and the future of other women.

A client who successfully transitioned to the C-suite, in a role that took a huge amount of courage on her part to fulfil, is proud of her success.  She has discovered a new boldness and confidence and her sights are now on the top role.  She asserts that she is proud of her “authentic feminine side” and being true to who she is was key to her success.


If you are a woman with strong ambitions to fulfil, why not consider one of our bespoke programmes for leaders. Begin the conversation by emailing me at info@potentialplus-int.com


If you would like to know more about what our clients have gained from our coaching we have lots of testimonials that you might find interesting.


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What do I really want ?

If I say yes to this what am I saying no to ?

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