Achieving Success as Women in Leadership – Knowing the Rules of the Game

Women in Leadership

This was my contribution ot International Women’s Day March 8, 2019. I share it with my women readers here.

I know from talking with many women over many years that much of what I am going to say here is very difficult for them. Some are quite indignant that they have to engage in what they believe is a game. In many ways it is, but as someone else has said, we have to play the game to change the game.

Karen Mitchell from Kalmor Consulting, who consults to women about career success, says that many of us as women make the wrong assumption in believing that if we work really hard we will be successful. Rather, she said, the key to success for the corporate woman is knowing the rules of the game. She said that we may not like it, and we don’t have to agree with it, but we need to work out how to play the game without losing our souls. Here are some ideas I’ve put together. It’s not a comprehensive or inclusive list, but rather some ideas and strategies that I, and other women  in leadership, have found helpful. Wherever you are on the ladder of success, there is something here for you.

Women need to do some conscious “planning” of their careers.

We all know that the best laid plans can go astray, but knowing what we want and working on a plan to achieve it is important. It needs to be a “living” plan that is flexible and can move and change when opportunities emerge that we never dreamed of. We need to go for both breadth and depth, setting out to accrue experience and build on it with every new opportunity that presents itself. We don’t stay with the same company, no matter how “nice” it is, unless it is helping us grow and develop in the direction of our plan. We need to work out what we want from our work and career, rather than trying to fit in with what is being offered, and then confidently endeavour to make it happen.

Women need to get a mentor.

A mentor from either inside or outside the company can help women develop their careers, Ideally this is someone who has been where we want to go. A mentor not only guides and supports but is also able to help us understand the dynamics and processes that move us towards management and leadership. A mentor can also help us work with the inevitable confrontations to our sense of professional self (and to our “woman-self”) that bring with them self-doubt, fear, anxiety and stress. A mentor can help us believe in ourselves and trust our judgment and intuition. They can help us develop qualities essential to leadership like big picture vision, resilience and that ability to bounce back from whatever happens, how to influence and proactively manage change, for example.

Women need to work out what motivates them and moves them to action.

Is it other inspiring women, or opposition and obstacles, or praise, or achieving a goal, or having a supportive mentor or surrounding ourselves with empowred and empowering people? When we know that, we need to make those motivators part of our daily lives. We need to develop those traits, or find those situations or surround ourselves with those kinds of people because that’s what will shape our success.

Women need to make a commitment to networking.

This is a major way that men achieve success and climb the ladder, but women are not good at it. Women managers are often left out of their male colleague’s informal networks, or find they are inappropriate and foreign to their experience. Joining organisations and attending functions where we, as women, can meet people who can offer us shared insight and experience, people who can offer us introductions to people who can support our career, is very important. If we have planned our careers, if we know what we want, if we have worked out what motivates us, then we can seek out the networking opportunities that will help us grow and learn. Networking doesn’t end as we walk out of the event either. Following up after a networking event is essential. We want people to remember us because if they do they will send opportunities our way when they hear about them. Not only that, we can build networks of people who inspire, motivate and empower us. It is very common for women to go to networking events with the people they work with every day and sit at a table with them and not mix with or meet anyone else. It is also important not to under-estimate the value of internal networking, building meaningful relationships and networks within our organisation who matter to our future.

Women need to get together with other women in the company and assess, evaluate and analyse the culture of their organisation.

They then need to pro-actively work out a proposal for how it can support women in management and leadership. This will have more validity if it is a shared venture. We can seek ways to align the values of the company with those of the women aspiring to leadership and management. If there is no alignment, then the company is not an employer of choice for women and it’s time to look for another job.

Women need to take ourselves and our careers seriously.

Professor Amanda Sinclair has made the comment that when she was working part-time at the university while having her children, she wasn’t taken seriously. She says that it is hard to take yourself seriously when other people aren’t. This is why it is so important for women to believe in “Doing Leadership Differently”, the title of her book. So women need to take the planning of their careers just as seriously at those times when they are not climbing the ladder – when they are working part time, or flexible hours or working from home so that they can accommodate their families – as they do when they are in a senior executive full-time position managing an entire department.  

Womens’ presentation style often belies their expertise and competence.

Professor Leonie Still found in her study of “The Woman Executive” that women ”deflect attention from themselves – refuse to claim a central, purposeful place in their own stories, eagerly shifting the credit elsewhere and shunning recognition” to avoid being called “unfeminine”. This also fits with many surveys that have been done asking women what they believe has been the greatest obstacle to their advancement in their career or business. In a survey of women engaged in a Women in Leadership program in Ballarat some years ago, 37% of the women said they lacked assertion and saw it as their greatest weakness as a leader.

Women need to  learn more direct communication styles.

Women often tend to use phrases such as “Let’s do…..” or “Why don’t we….”, instead of being more decisive. We use consultative processes and consensus decision-making. This is often seen as a weakness by those observing. Our capacity for strong decision-making and clear and precise leadership of people is questioned.

Women also need to stop apologising for their existence.

We constantly say things like: “I’m sorry to interrupt you but….”, instead of knocking on the door and saying confidently “I have completed that report you wanted done today.” Instead of “I know you are very busy but would you have time to speak with me”, we could say, again confidently, “I need to speak with you about that report. Is now convenient or would you prefer me to come back later?” Dr. Lois Frankel wrote a book called “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” subtitled “Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers”. It is full of examples of these types of things.

Women therefore need to promote themselves, and speak about their achievements with one another and with their staff.

We find this very difficult, but we need to learn to do this so that our achievements are recognised and acknowledged. It is possible to learn ways to do this that are not driven by ego-centrism and arrogance, but rather by passion, excitement and commitment to having made a difference.

As Women we need to make ourselves visible.

Just as women’s ideas are often not heard in meetings, until repeated by a male colleague who often claims them as his own, so also women’s work is often not acknowledged as hers either, a manager to whom she is reporting presenting it either as his/her own or as a shared venture when it was the exclusive work of the woman manager. The woman misses the credit due to her and the recognition of her potential. Women need to ensure when they are working on a project that more than one person knows what they are doing so that their work, along with its demonstration of their competence, cannot be “stolen”. This can usually be done quite easily in a very non-confrontational way, by cc-ing emails to a trusted other/s, or asking a trusted someone to read it and give some feed-back, and then assertively and confidently telling the manager that you have asked others for feed-back which you believe will make for the best report. This gives the best insurance that our competence and ability will be recognised and acknowledged.

This is especially important if our company is slow in appointing women to positions of management and leadership. If you are the President of a Rotary club, for example, you could invite him to come to a meeting where he can see you demonstrate leadership and management, see your influence and how you are respected. Better still if you can organise for him to be a guest speaker. He could also be invited to a conference where you are giving a paper. This is an opportunity for you to introduce him to people who matter. He sees you as a woman of power – or a woman empowered – but certainly very differently to how he saw you before.

Women need to become clear about what our value is to the company for which we work and quantify it if possible.

We need to be conscious all the time of adding value. If we are clear about our value we will be in a much better position to negotiate to have our needs met around

  • wanting more challenging opportunities,
  • looking after children when they are sick,
  • part time work, or job-sharing or job-splitting,
  • maternity leave arrangements,
  • working from home some days each week, for example,

Women need to confidently analyse their leadership styles and weave a rationale for it.

The “soft stuff”, so often associated with women’s leadership styles, when used by people with highly developed emotional intelligence, is not weak but powerful and essential to any business or leadership strategy. This is now being recognised. In recent times many companies are placing great importance on developing emotional intelligence in their people as a way to enhance their effectiveness.


If women are going to be taken seriously and achieve the success they want, they need to heighten their organisational profile. Diana Ryall, the Managing Director of career counselling firm Xplore, has made the point that the overall affect of what I am talking about above – women’s indirect communication styles, their inability to promote themselves, their lack of meaningful networks, for example – is that they have a lower organisational profile and are therefore not on the radar screen when consideration is being given to recruiting people for new projects or roles. What I have tried to do above is provide women with a whole range of strategies for increasing their organisational profiles.

There are successful women in the corporate sector out there who have done that very successfully. They have also learnt to play the game with integrity and style. They are excellent role models who have produced enviable results. It’s just that there are not enough of them.

But what is most important, however, is that we have to believe in ourselves. We don’t have to be a corporate woman to achieve this success. we don’t even have to be in a leadership role to act like a leader and be a role model to other women.

We do need to support one another. As the former US Secretary of State once said: “There’s a place in hell for women who don’t support other women.”

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