Tips for Female Leaders to Make It to the Top

Companies with more women in the top ranks outperform their industry peers, according to new research from the International Consortium for Executive Development Research (ICEDR). But less than 5 percent of CEOs are women.

What’s more, according to a study by McKinsey & Co., gender diversity is among the top three CEO agenda items at just 12 percent of companies.

Both findings suggest it is time for young female leaders to take charge of their careers. And, according to the ICEDR study, women can do this in three ways: explore, own and repay.

Many of the top female executives interviewed for the study mentioned that they had explored who they are, what they wanted and a variety of career paths.

For example, they had taken the time to reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and their goals for their work and personal lives. Moreover, many had ventured into an explorative career journey full of twists and turns.

As Jane Leung, head of iShares Asia Pacific at investment company BlackRock, said in the study: “When I talk to young women early in their careers, I tell them that life does not always happen the way you think it is going to.” The more flexible, the better, she said.

Consider another example: Kristin Peck, executive vice president and group president of animal health company Zoetis, formerly Pfizer Animal Health. As a child, Peck’s dream was to be quarterback of the New York Jets and then president of the United States.

Her fearless attitude led her to explore many career paths, from commercial real estate finance, to real estate private equity, to investment banking, management consulting and so on. “A plan is a nice thing to have, but a career is an obstacle course. It’s not a path. There is no straight line,” Peck said.

Diversity executives can serve as essential partners in the exploration process, encouraging women to develop a deep sense of their strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes and goals, and to have open conversations with their managers.
Many of the women interviewed in the ICEDR study stated the importance of stepping up, being proactive and making things happen.

For example, Julie Coffman, a partner at consultancy Bain & Co., said: “I was always taught that if you have the right idea, you should raise your hand and volunteer to lead. Be a problem solver, not a problem identifier.”

Several women in the study mentioned that they think like entrepreneurs and feel accountable for the business as if they owned it. For example, Ellen Walsh, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said: “What I enjoy is the ability to be an entrepreneur, but within a big firm.”

In essence, the interviewees shared a fundamental approach: own it.

Diversity executives play an important role in helping women to take ownership at work. For instance, in 2011 pharmaceutical company Pfizer created OWN IT! This program aimed to create a new culture model for the entire organization based on the concept of owning a career path.

According to Susan Silbermann, president and general manager of vaccines at Pfizer, an important part of this culture is “you own your career,” she said. “Pfizer is not in charge of you.”

Many of the female executives interviewed in the study emphasized that they have climbed the ranks due to their own talent and hard work, but that there had always been someone who was essential in helping them succeed along the way — a parent, spouse or boss.

For example, Yvonne Greenstreet, senior vice president and head of medicines development for the specialty care business unit at Pfizer, said: “The most critical influence on my life has been my mother. She grew up in Ghana and moved to the U.K. in her teens. When she returned to Ghana, she set up an adult education institute and built it into the institute that delivers the most education to the largest number of people in Ghana. … I really learned from her the notion of trying to impact your community and being a positive role model.”

Diversity executives play an essential role in creating a culture that encourages leaders to repay. In particular, diversity executives can encourage senior-level women to act as stewards for rising female stars.

In the end, these lessons — explore, own, repay — show what worked for a group of female executives who have made it. By using this roadmap as a guide, the next generation of female leaders can chart their journeys to the top. And diversity executives have an essential role to play in this process.

Lauren Ready is the director of talent management initiatives at ICEDR. She can be reached at