What does it take to make it to the top? Ahead of International Women’s Day, we asked three of our directors to share their career success stories, the challenges they’ve overcome and the role models that have inspired them.
From breaking the mould to flexible work schedules and sharing success, here’s their top six tips to climbing the corporate ladder…
1. Find realistic role models
From mothers to managing directors, all of our interviewees had stories to share of people who had inspired them, and were unanimous in their view that role models play an important role as examples for women aspiring to progress in their careers.
“Women often ask me how I do my job and manage my family. The general assumption is that it’s not possible for them to achieve a senior position and manage family life. For me, this highlights just how important it is for women to have examples they can follow,” says Özlem Simsek, managing director of Robert Walters and Walters People Belgium.
Kritee Gower, account director for Resource Solutions, agrees, reflecting on her own experience: “Prior to joining Resource Solutions, I didn’t feel as if I had role models that I could use as a base for inspiration. It’s surprising how just seeing examples of success from people that you can personally identify with can suddenly transform your view of what’s possible.”
2. Embrace your individuality
While role models can show a path, it’s important to remember that there’s more than one route to success, and women shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. “Being able to speak out in difficult or uncomfortable situations is a crucial leadership quality,” says Rachna Ratra, director at Robert Walters Japan.
Kritee agrees, adding, “It’s important to never lose sight of the things that are most important to you. In the past, I’ve found myself in roles where I was expected to follow an approach which really didn’t sit comfortably with my personal values. It’s not easy to go against the grain, but it’s infinitely better to speak out than continue down a path that’s not right for you. For me, maintaining a level of integrity has always been key.”
Özlem supports this view, adding, “If you want something to succeed, you really need to believe in it, so choose your strategy and stick with it. The course might not always run smoothly, but keep focussed and you’ll persevere.”
3. Be open about your ambition
According to a recent study by McKinsey, women are far less likely to be promoted than hired into management, with 79 women receiving a promotion into management for every 100 men.
While Kritee believes that this could be partly down to assumptions being made about women’s career aspirations and encourages managers to create opportunities for women to discuss their ambitions: “Sometimes, simply asking the question ‘what do you want to achieve?’ is all that’s needed to gain a clear view of not just what someone wants in their career, but what they need in order to achieve that goal.”
Özlem highlights that women should also vocalise their career ambition: “I’ve always been very direct. I know what I want from my career and I make sure my managers are aware that I’m still here, I still want opportunities.”
Reflecting on her own career journey, Özlem explains how launching our Walters People Belgium business at the age of twenty-six gave her the impetus to push her career forward: “I was given a blank sheet of paper and told, ‘here’s what we want to achieve, here’s your budget, here’s the phone and you’re ready to go’.
“At that moment, I realised that this was the best thing that my leadership team could do for me, because I’m the kind of person that, if I have the opportunity to build something my way, I’m going to give it everything I can.”
4. Share your success and encourage others to do the same
However, all the women we interviewed admitted to either experiencing Imposter Syndrome or having seen its impact on people they’ve managed. While formal training and development processes can help to address this, both Kritee and Özlem believe leaders have an important role to play in establishing a supportive culture that encourages people to own their achievements.
“For me mentoring is not something that only exists in a formal structure; it’s about always being there to cheer your people on, coach them and provide guidance when they have difficulties. The most important thing is to listen and make time for people,” says Özlem.
While Kritee believes that women should also feel confident to share their own success, “While everyone needs cheerleaders, it’s also important to highlight your own achievements. Not only can this provide great learning opportunities for others, it also helps to remind you of your capabilities.”
5. Work for a company that cares
Continuing the theme of workplace culture, all of the women we interviewed shared the view that flexibility is crucial to enabling women to move into leadership roles.
For Rachna, this is particularly important for working parents. “In my view, being a working mother is a superpower; you have to be efficient and resourceful as you don’t have the luxury of unlimited time at the office. However, if businesses focus on presenteeism rather than productivity, this value will be overlooked.”
Kritee supports this view, “your work environment can significantly help or hinder your career progression. So, when it comes to accepting a new role, probe whether a company truly places staff wellbeing at its heart. For example, find out whether they offer a mentoring programme or run staff network groups as these can be clear indicators of a company culture that is supportive and collaborative.”
While Rachna adds, “never feel like you have to compromise on your career ambitions. Instead, find a company that will give you the opportunities you’re looking for.”
6. Instil confidence in yourself and others
Speaking as leaders, all three of our interviewees agree that feeling confident and comfortable to develop your own working style is a key career milestone.
“I believe that leadership is something that is and should be learnt. It’s a skill that is continuously developed over time,” says Rachna, adding “While training can equip women with the skills and tools they need to move into management, encouragement can also be hugely powerful in helping someone to make that leap.”
Özlem believes that it’s also important for women to have confidence in their abilities. She says, “I think women in particular are susceptible to trying to plan too much ahead and that can really hold them back. The reality is that leaders don’t have all the answers, and that’s ok. Great leadership comes from trusting that your intuition and experience can help guide you, and learning from the times when you do go off course!”
Kritee agrees that the perception that leaders are all-knowing is a common fallacy, and encourages women to consider leadership as being less in the spotlight and more about shining the light on others: “Leadership is a privilege, and, while you grow through experience, the real reward is helping others move forward too.”
Read more from our #BalanceForBetter series:
Navigating parental leave - five ways to get it right
Seven lessons for aspiring women entrepreneurs
Eight ways we can #BalanceForBetter in the workplace
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