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Women in the C-Suite Talk About Leadership

By Barbabara Annis

One of the advantages of leadership is that it puts you in front of leaders—something that is simply taken for granted in the C-suite. So when the CEO of a well-known financial company asked his colleague, the company’s CFO, to flesh out her ideas for a presentation to the board, she quite naturally understood this as emblematic of her own leadership role.

The presentation would be held in London, and the New York-based CFO dedicated a significant amount of time and effort to making it a clear and persuasive argument, bringing to bear her decades of experience and the depth and breadth of her training and skill. She worked on it in the office and in just about every spare moment, trying to ensure perfection in every detail, then flew to London the night before the presentation and, the following morning, met with the CEO to discuss just how the meeting with the board would proceed.

“The presentation is excellent,” he told her over breakfast. “You’ve done really fine work.” He paused. “So I’ll take it from here.”
For a moment, she was stunned. What did that mean—“take it from here”?

“The board prefers that I present our case,” the CEO went on, “but of course I’ll need you there to back me up with data and details.”
Ah, yes. That explained it.

Did she protest? Did she throw it back at him and insist that it should be the other way around—with him backing her up, if needed, from the sidelines while she assumed the cloak of leadership? She did not. She sat against the wall, not even at the table, listened to her CEO make one blunder after another, and stayed silent. She folded.

Is this what it’s like above the glass ceiling? Did women punch their way through only to find that they were still expected to serve the boss his coffee—i.e., “back him up with data and details”? Did they arrive at the top to learn that, when the issue was leadership, they must cave?

No. At least, not always and not necessarily.

The irony, of course, is that when this CFO was on the other side of the glass ceiling, before she had punched her way through it, she would have seen the pitfall up ahead and been ready to jump over it. So, what’s different once you’ve shattered the ceiling and are actually in the leadership ranks?

My firm, Barbara Annis & Associates, went to find out—at least in part—on the theory that women below the glass ceiling might benefit from knowing what women above the glass ceiling have learned. Over a period of 14 months, we interviewed nearly 2,000 C-suite women working for large global, for-profit companies. This is what we discovered.

What Changed

A generation ago, the mantra for women seeking a corporate career was clear: Study hard, earn the degree, find the company, secure the interview, get the job. Security resided in belonging to the corporate world, in being a participant in a company’s mission. That is also where loyalty resided: Once you were accepted onto a team, it was the team that warranted your steadfast devotion. No more.
Today, women at the highest levels of the corporate power structure find their security not in the team but in their own capabilities. They seek not so much to belong as to self-initiate, so the unwritten contract with their employer doesn’t ask for a particular promised future, but rather for the chance to expand their knowledge and skills.

To some extent, the changes in women’s attitudes have been forced on them by what a researcher into the subject has dubbed “less-than-wholehearted acceptance” of women in majority-male workplaces. If you can’t get into the internal networks or find acceptance in the locker-room culture, or overcome institutionalized norms that put you at a disadvantage, then you must build your own networks, forge your own culture, create new advantageous norms. Women have done so and one result, as the Harvard Business School’s Boris Groysberg has found, is that they have built portable skills they can apply wherever they go, adding financial value to whatever company hires them—something that does not happen with men stars who switch firms.

These findings seem confirmation, if more were needed, that women are right not to look to the company to take care of them, but rather to practice self-care, developing those portable skills that empower them to create their own future, irrespective of job, company, or industry. That remains the dilemma confronting today’s corporate women striving for the C-suite or above, and that is why it is important to set forth some of the pitfalls, as we do below—in the hope that awareness of them can help women resolve themselves out of the pattern.

Bold Requests

Women tend not to make them. Men always do.

For men, bold requests are a no-brainWer; they shoot for the moon, and they do their shooting from the hip. And while they are shooting, women are scrutinizing, examining, assessing their own abilities and readiness. It is said that men with 30 percent of a required skill set will claim expertise; women will hold back from such a claim if they lack even one of the skills on the list. It is why women score through the roof when they negotiate on behalf of others but do so badly negotiating for themselves—and it is why this pitfall can be so costly.

How can women overcome this hesitancy when it comes to making a request, applying for something, making a bid, stating a demand? Practice intentionally until you’re comfortable with it; there’s no other way.

Self-Promotion

Women fail here because they cling to an outmoded assumption that their achievements speak for themselves. They might, but only if those achievements—whether individual or as part of a team—are published widely and loudly.
My favorite example of enlightened self-promotion comes from a man I helped recruit for a CEO position. The individuals providing his references didn’t just sing his praises, they did so with concrete evidence of all he had accomplished in his varied career. When I called to congratulate him and related this to him, he was unsurprised. “I have worked the self-promotion task throughout my career,” he told me. “I keep a file on my personal laptop of all my accomplishments, and I sit down and attend to it ritually every Friday afternoon. I add accomplishments to the file, review the total list, and send emails on a few pertinent achievements to people in my contacts list to whom they might be relevant. That’s why you heard such good things about me.” He was right.

The lesson? Be explicit about what you have achieved. Your accomplishments only speak for you if you make sure people hear about them.

Hard work

Two things happen when you get noticed for how hard you work: (1) you become indispensable, and when you’re indispensable, no one will ever want to move you away into a new, bigger opportunity, so (2) you become invisible.
I call it the loyalty trap—the assumption that loyalty speaks to how much you’re able to produce. In fact, being known for the volume of work you deliver, or the amount of time you spend delivering it, may be nice, but it is a trap that can dead-end your upward advancement. Be known instead for the authenticity of your work and for an intuition that has proven its worth.

Grunt Work

The CFO in the narrative at the top of this article jumped in enthusiastically to do the background work and to dot every I and cross every T of the presentation to the board—and defeated her own purpose in doing so.

She failed to distinguish between a management project and a leadership project, and it ended with her managing the work and the CEO seizing the leadership role.
Women need to negotiate for their piece of the leadership pie in a win-win manner, not to take anything away from anyone, but to take their rightful place at the leader’s podium.

Strategic Networking

Women can network alright, but they too often forget the strategic part of it. While men network for transactional reasons, with women, it’s relational. That is, men network to obtainsomething; women network for relationships and connections. Here’s an example.

At an investment bank’s triennial event, a senior leader I’ll call Sally looked forward to re-connecting with colleagues from around the world; she was therefore stunned to see them looking past her or over her head during their conversations. They all had their eyes on the door, waiting for the new CEO to enter so they could race over to introduce themselves. Sally thought they were idiots for not wanting to reconnect and left the reception. Only later did she realize her own foolishness in not seizing the strategic opportunity, as they did, to put themselves in front of the new leader.

A generation ago, the mantra for women seeking a corporate career was clear: Study hard, earn the degree, find the company, secure the interview, get the job… no more.

Staying the Course

When the going gets tedious, we women tend to get tired or turned off. “Oh so what?” we argue to ourselves; “what’s the big deal?”

When a law firm’s client began to push back on the number of billed hours, a woman partner I know was ready to yield, but her male colleague reminded her that every minute spent even thinking about the client’s problem was in the client’s interest—and therefore billable. That is the way the business works, and it profits no one to cave to a client’s challenge. Yet far too readily, we women lose our passion for the challenge and decide it isn’t worth it. It is worth it; it’s how we get to do a great job. Whether the negotiation is for salary, for budget, for the conditions you need to do the job right, it’s essential to stay the course, no matter how long it may drag on.


Barbara Annis, Founder and CEO of Barbara Annis & Associates Inc., is a world-renowned expert on Gender Intelligence, Inclusive Leadership, and Cultural Intelligence, advocating the value and practice of Gender Intelligence and inclusiveness in over 75 Fortune 500 companies.