What advice would you give to the next generation of women? To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, we asked seven inspiring senior business women to share their success stories, the challenges they’ve faced and the actions younger women can take to #PressforProgress in their careers. Here’s their top five career success secrets:
Don’t try to fit the mould
For many of the women we interviewed, the first step to success was realising that there was more than one way to achieve it. “Earlier in my career, I felt that career progression could only be achieved if I shaped myself into a certain mould. I’ve since learnt that being myself is far more powerful,” says Molly Bedingfield, founder and CEO of international charity Global Angels.
Hailey Bell, IT Audit Director at BP, agrees that women shouldn’t feel a need to adjust their behaviour in order to progress at work: “Attempting to mould yourself into a shape that doesn’t fit takes up a lot of energy that could be better spent on doing your job in a style that suits you.”
While Rachael Akidi Okwir, head of East Africa languages for the BBC World Service, encourages women to focus on enhancing their strengths rather than worrying about their weaker areas: “I wasted years ignoring my strengths, but now I know that no one can be good at everything, and you offer far more value as an expert in an area you excel in.”
Face your fears
Each and every leader we spoke to advocated pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and raising your hand for new opportunities. “Learning to say yes to something, especially if you feel unsure, really is the first step to success. It’s all about recognising challenge as a means to grow rather than a risk of making a mistake,” says Coralie Rachet, managing director of Robert Walters France.
This view is shared by Norma Gillespie, global managing director of enterprise accounts for Resource Solutions, she advises: “If something makes you nervous, whether it be presenting to clients or sharing a new idea, take every opportunity to practice that task until you’ve overcome your anxiety. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve found that facing my fears head on had a hugely positive impact on my professional development, helping me to build both my confidence and skills. In addition, there’s no greater sense of achievement than conquering something that previously crippled your confidence.”
While Sally Raj, managing director of Robert Walters Indonesia, adds: “Be that little bit braver, because you have nothing to lose by trying, but being reticent could cost you a fantastic opportunity. In my experience, the more you push beyond your comfort zone, the more of a habit it becomes.”
Surround yourself with the right people
Nonetheless, building confidence isn’t always easy. All of the women we interviewed had stories to share about the people that had challenged and championed them at different points in their career, and were unanimous that mentoring, both formal and informal, had played a key role in their success. As Rachael said: “We all need that person who can be a sounding board and sometimes a cheerleader.”
It’s important to note that mentors don’t have to be people like you. Hailey points out that it’s important to be open to perspectives that are different from your own. “I’ve always been careful to surround myself with people who are very different from me and have developed what I call a ‘personal board’ – a network of relationships, both personal and professional, that inspire and challenge me by pushing me out of my comfort zone.”
While both Molly and Norma believe it’s important to surround yourself with positive people who want to help drive your success. A view that Coralie Rachet, managing director of Robert Walters France echoes: “My managing director was instrumental to advancing my career. He pushed me to challenge myself - he saw my potential and was determined to help me realise it.”
Maternity leave isn’t a career killer
While maternity leave is commonly viewed to have a detrimental effect on women’s careers, the leader’s we spoke to all had positive experiences to share. In fact, Coralie believes taking maternity leave can have a really positive effect on a woman’s career: “Having time away from the day to day gives you a bigger picture view of the business and the opportunity to re-evaluate your career, so when the time came for me to return to work, I found that I had a renewed motivation and excitement to push myself further.”
However, Coralie also stresses that having a supportive team is critical to ensuring businesses retain top female talent, a view that Cara O'Leary, global account manager at LinkedIn, and Norma agreed with. Norma also recommends that women utilise KIT (keeping in touch) days so to help ease them back into the corporate world. “Having the opportunity to get to grips with changes and meet new team members and clients made my return to work far less daunting.”
While Sally adds: “If you take time out from the corporate world, keeping updated will make it a lot easier to re-enter.”
Believe in yourself
Lacking confidence was something all the leaders that we interviewed had either experienced personally or through mentoring other women, and everyone named a lack of self-belief as one of the main barriers to women progressing in their careers.
But why do so many women question their capability? “In my experience, women are more careful by nature, whereas men tend to be more trigger happy and prepared to send off a job application without second guessing themselves,” says Sally.
Rachael agrees. “I once gave a pep talk with a woman who thought she would be ‘blagging it’ if she applied for a role that she didn’t meet all the criteria for. She had ruled herself out because she didn't tick a couple of boxes in the job description,” she reveals.
So how do women overcome that nagging self-doubt? For Cara, taking note of how men navigate their careers prompted her to become her own brand ambassador. She reveals: “I overhead a male colleague discussing his recent project that had been a great success. The confidence he had really resonated with me and made me realise that if I don’t talk about my success, who will?”
However, as Sally summarises: “Your success is determined by your mind-set and having people that share your passion and want to push you forward can be a huge help, but ultimately if you want something, you just need to go for it.”