Women and getting ahead in business


Just had an anonymous comment on an old post.

The commenter said:

“Honey, you must be very young. It’s not just about how hard you work. The ole’ boy’s network is alive and well – you just haven’t reached a high enough level in the corporate hierarchy to see it yet. “

The comment is welcome on several levels:

1) I love being told I’m young (more people should tell me that), which probably reveals that I’m older than the commenter thinks.

2) I have worked as a senior executive in large corporations for quite a few years.

3) Many of my female friends are senior executives, ‘C’ level executives or board directors. Many of the women I mentor are aspiring to those roles.

My personal history is instructive because it does not fit the ‘normal’ pattern of how you get ahead in the corporate world. I was born into a poor family and lived in a socio-economically deprived part of the city; I also have attention deficit disorder together with some learning difficulties. When I finally did get to university I dropped out in third year to assist my four younger siblings when my parents died. I had to go out and get a job. Without a completed degree the only option available was an entry level clerical job, and I watched other people with better educations and less personal responsibilities zoom past me. Over the years I worked hard and smart to get promoted and eventually I got to parity with those peers who had zoomed past me. Then I started to go past some of those peers, they had not been working as hard or remaining as focused (i.e. they went home while I stayed at the office). But the important thing is that I found something I had a passion for, and that makes it easy to stay focused. With a thirst for knowledge in my area I became the go-to person in that area. Eventually I went back to university and studied while I held down a C level job in a major corporation, finally obtaining a masters degree in business. Along the way I was also Chairman and President of a number of industry and professional associations.

Over the years in corporate life there are a few things I have learned:

  • There are only a few top jobs in each company, and those that get them are those who have no other life. You need to be dedicated, focused and committed. There are very few people in top jobs who have not put in 12 hour days for many years. Fair or not, work life balance does not get you to the top in business (not yet anyway).
  • Nobody is going to just offer you these top jobs; you have to go for them. You need to put up your hand for tough assignments and get noticed.
  • You need to work out what the networks are in the organization and link into them. In one company the power network was the smokers who used to go downstairs and stand outside for a smoke. I did not smoke so I used to grab a coffee and stand with them while I drank it (ensuring never to stand down wind of them).
  • You need to take risks and show the powers that be that you are the solution to some of their problems. I have always worked on the ‘no surprises’ principle for my boss and other stakeholders, and have always been the provider of solutions rather than just pointing out problems.
  • You will never get ahead if you leave it to chance. It is important to work out what you want to achieve and the steps necessary to achieve it. A plan is a good and useful thing.
  • You will meet people of ill will, it is important to get used to this and to develop your own strategies for dealing with them. Sometimes those people of ill will and your boss will be one and the same. The options are: stay and manage the person and situation, cry and be a victim, or vote with your feet.

On the whole, I am tired of the woman as victim theme. Women have choices, lots more than men in many cases. Many men also do not get ahead in business. The men that I know who got ahead have all worked longer and harder than their peers, have networked more ferociously, and have become well respected in their specialty area. The case is precisely the same for the women who have been successful. One thing I know for sure, none of these successful people sat around whingeing that nobody was giving them a chance. They set the agenda, took the risks and showed why they should be given more opportunities.