We’re all too familiar with the narrative of how it’s harder for women to get ahead than men in the corporate arena, especially of late with the increased workload that is often placed on women with families.
Wanting to understand how best to navigate this slippery terrain, I interviewed several women over the last few months who have reached great heights in their careers, serving as top level executives, board members and company founders.
My intention with these interviews was to discern what traits they share which contributed to their success and ultimately their organization’s bottom line. My hope is that their wisdom will provide valuable insights for those women who are struggling to have similar success.
Confidence and Taking Risks
Most of these executives spoke of their having to believe fully in their ability to do the job for which they were hired and/or to push themselves past any fears about not being capable of doing what was asked of them in their roles.
According to Sharon John, “I think that it has been my ability to create a sense of competence and confidence. I was willing to try different things and stretch my goals and recalibrate what I believed I was capable of. That is an absolutely critical element of being successful.
“You have to be willing to push yourself and ask and raise your hand and fail. I think a lot of people are so afraid of failure. One of my favorite things to say to people is, ‘if you haven’t failed, you haven’t figured out how far you can go.”
She continued. “So I failed. The key is to not let that get you into a spiraling, negative mindset. Look at it for what it is. Translate it so you can learn from it. Put it in a box and use that box as a step. The end. Don’t internalize it.”
Mary Maroun spoke of confidence this way, “The biggest (factor for my success) is just believing in myself, being confident and not letting the voices in my head take over. Really just understanding you’ve got what it takes. You’re as good as anyone.”
Further, she adds, “Confidence in the ability to lead, confidence in the ability to instill trust and respect. Of course, you need to be smart and have all the academic pieces and the skill sets to do the job, but I think at the end of the day, people pick up on how you’re feeling and what you believe. For me, it’s the difference between good and … great.”
Jennifer Hochstatter concurs. “I think the biggest factor for my success has been a certain fearlessness, whether tackling a difficult task or a politically challenging situation.”
She then adds “If something is tough or hard, some say it requires “thick skin” and might even go so far as to stereotype it as “a man’s work.” I’ve been pretty successful in busting that stereotype by not being afraid of what could happen and jumping in anyway.”
Carmela D. Krantz described the key factors for her success in these terms: “Taking risks, doing things that, on reflection, were scary. Going to work at places that were new and untested.
“Committing to doing things where I didn’t completely know what I was doing and seeing those things as opportunities. This idea that everyone has to be 1,000% prepared and know everything about everything I just think is unrealistic. This is what I think made a difference.”
Michele Carroll added “I think the underlying confidence that things will work out is key. I’ve always known in my core that things will be okay. There’s a great saying, ‘It’ll all be good in the end, and if it isn’t good now, it’s not the end.”
In terms of executive mentorship, many of the women interviewed focused on the importance of high level mentorship. That mentorship was seen as most significant when it came from men in the C-suite of the organization.
In addition to this, when there was mentorship, the other factor that was called out was for the women to take very seriously the goals that were stated by the higher level executive. Keeping their attention focused on creating results for the mentor and responsibility to the organization was seen as a key piece in earning more opportunities to excel.
According to Jennifer Browne, “Without a doubt, executive sponsorship at a high, high level (was a key factor for my success.)
She goes on to say, “It has happened at every level. It’s important to have your manager as an advocate. I was fortunate enough to have very high level executive sponsorship from early on in my career and a vote of confidence from those executives that gave me opportunities that sort of outpaced anything that I would have expected to have.
“And it’s a combination of both that and their ability to sort of recognize talent, and give me an opportunity to take on stretch assignments.
“And also my appreciation of how rare that opportunity was and sort of a personal dedication to making sure that I turned it into further opportunities for myself and that I didn’t disappoint, that I delivered on the faith and confidence that was placed in me.
“I’ve seen it where there can be great faith and confidence and there can be an opportunity provided. But there’s not a full appreciation of the degree of responsibility that this carries to follow through on what they expect.
“I’ve seen it take a different direction, where someone might be appreciative but they use it to further their own objective, (in my case I would) take myself out of that (the) equation and (let go of) my own sort of professional hopes and dreams and wants, just using it as an opportunity to go above and beyond and deliver on what the priorities were of the people who placed the opportunity before me.”
Joyce Johnson-Miller had this to share: “Finding that C-Suite or senior executive male” was one of the key factors for her success.
She adds, “Many have said that they’d had trouble finding true mentors or coaches. I think you need to look towards not just women as your coaches and mentors but also finding that C-suite or senior executive male who would be interested in coaching and working with you, and learning how to be a really active listener when engaging with your coaches and your colleagues.”
Sheila Parker Tolle spoke of great advice she received that she feels led to her success in this way: “Good mentors and bosses… so I could ask, “Should I do this or should I do that? (career changes)…”
“The guy who hired me said, ‘This isn’t as big of a decision as you think it is. It just feels big right now… You can always come back. If you hate it, give it a year and come back. Knowing you, you’re going to like it. And I think it’s going to give you more options.’ Then he said, ‘Always take the route that will expand your options versus shrinking them. But early on, if you’re shrinking your options, you better love (the work you’re doing) because that’s what you’re doing the rest of your life.'”
Michele Carroll credited her mentorship as having given her, “amazing, inspiring role models, you know, visionary leaders. They just kept inspiring me to have an entrepreneurial mindset.”
Deb Atwater-Robles added her sense of the importance of, “Having a male mentor who can provide another perspective, someone with good family values.”
Education is also seen as a powerful factor in building confidence in female executives. Not only did this give others a sense of readiness for the work, but it seems also to have given many interviewed the same sense of intellectual breadth and preparedness.
Sheila Parker Tolle, with an Engineering degree from UCLA and an MBA from Harvard, felt her education was the greatest factor in her success, stating, “Education got me in the door and established credibility.” Her education helped them feel confident with her. “She’s got the educational chops for whatever the heck they were asking me to do.”
Michele Carroll’s most important attribute for her success was defined this way, “I think my education was actually phenomenal and extremely important to my success. I’ve worked most of my career in an industry that values street-savvy over academic achievement. But my education was essential in providing me the hands-on skills necessary to excel in international business.”
“I double majored in English and Political Science, which was excellent preparation for a Communications specialist and a practitioner committed to deep understanding of market trends and drivers. It was in college where I developed a real passion for learning.
“And my International Business masters involved living and working overseas, which inspired me to get more involved with current global affairs. Learning that our American perspective isn’t the only one really altered my perspective. Honestly, in business and in life, education is crucial to success.”
Focused on Company Goals
More than one of the interviewees mentioned that it is important for those in the middle ranks to keep their attention on the organization’s goals and vision versus their own, personal brand.
Jean Phillips felt strongly that her success was brought on by her ability to stay focused on the company’s goals. “I was told that the focus of the business is on the shareholder value and don’t lose track of that.”
She goes on to say: “That’s where we need to focus in terms of a publicly traded company. When I moved into the not-for-profit world, it was always having the member/customer in mind in terms of making sure that you don’t get off track. Not solving for your department, your area, your group, but really looking at things holistically across the organization.
“I had a unique ability, according to one of the senior VPs I worked with. She couched it this way: ‘A natural top of the line/bottom line focus and being able to do the operation in my role within that construct.’ It worked for me.”
Passion for Their Work
Deb Atwater-Robles, quoted previously, listed her love of her work as her greatest factor for her success saying, “I’m passionate about what I do. Sometimes it gets in the way, but it is true that I love what I do and I enjoy the people I work with.”
Sheila Parker Tolle, quoted previously added, “Another big factor in my success is that I loved my work. The day to day of building the team and solving (problems) for customers and meeting new people. I really enjoyed that.”
Jean Phillips, quoted above, concurs with her statement ”I enjoyed my work. I know that that really contributed to my success.”
Family played a key role for many of these ladies’ success. Whether it was the role of their family of origin in their formative years, husbands and partners who fully supported their wives as their careers began to blossom, or a personal choice to ensure they had a lasting career to support their family, these women felt family was key to their advancement.
Gretchen Salyer provided this unique insight, “I was blessed with two strong and loving parents. I’m one of three sisters and my dad always supported us in whatever ideas we had, even if they were crazy.
“He would just support us and tell us, ‘Okay, well, if you want to do that, here are the 30 steps to get there.’ He always gave space to explore whether our ideas were what we wanted and/or achievable for us and was always there to build us back up when we failed or had to change direction too.
“Sometimes, breaking down the steps required to achieve your wildest ideas is enough to give you the confidence to go after it … or even help you realize that idea might not be for you.”
She continues, “Take your goal, break it down, and start attacking it step by step. Evaluate how things are going along the way. Sometimes, the steps fly by, and sometimes they are steep and you have to pivot. My dad taught me to believe in myself for the hard things but also to learn from my challenges and failures to achieve better outcomes than I ever thought possible.
“My mom also had a huge influence on me. She grew up in a family where girls were not given the same opportunities as men. My mom and her sister weren’t expected or supported to go to college. She always told my sisters and me that she was going to raise us differently — and raised us all with a certainty that we could do whatever we were capable of and wanted to do.”
Sheila Parker Tolle talked about her husband as a key supporter to her success. “I have a super supportive husband (who said), ‘Go do it! You can do it, keep going!’
When our son was four or in 4th grade, he was like, ‘We can’t both keep working and doing this.’ And he was the one who stopped working.”
She shared that several other women around her had a similar experience but that many just don’t talk about this unconventional approach to family leadership.
And Susan Grayson Stone added, with regards to her hard work and determination to succeed, “Honestly, I did it to support myself and my family. I knew I was going to be the primary breadwinner so there was no way out but through it.
“I’m really fortunate to have had the career that I had. I didn’t really have a choice. I had a family to support. So I tried to learn as much as I could in each job that I had so that I was building skills that would allow me to have a long term career.”
She continued, “I took on some very challenging jobs, knowing that they were going to be challenging. Some situations were really tough, but I spent time feeling into how each was going to enhance my skills and dedicated myself to seeing them through.
“Looking back on it, I can’t believe I pulled it off energy-wise. It was like I was living from an alternate state of consciousness. You put your head down and work as hard as you can. And appreciate the lucky breaks when you get them.”
The other factors that were called out by individual interviewees are reminiscent of some of the points already mentioned, but nonetheless, stand out on their own.
Caretha Coleman credits her success to what she calls “plowing ahead with fear.”
Caretha says, “As I am asked by women of the younger generation, especially black women professionals, ‘How did you get to where you are and how did you put up with some of the stuff we need to put up with to get there? And are these the same challenges for you as well?’
“My answer is absolutely yes! But if I thought about it every morning when I got up, I don’t know that I moved forward, number one. And it would have been a real challenge to go to work and effectively engage my colleagues in ways that would be productive.
“The truth is that whether it’s men or women, whether they’re people of color or not, the thing is, if I went to bed thinking about how people were going to be treating me the next day, every time, it would be paralyzing …
“I believe in leaning in, but a while back, you had to move a lot of rocks before you can even think about leaning in. That space wasn’t there … I think there were many factors that led to my success that were really sort of pushed forward by fear of failure; rather than by a fierceness of leaning. Fear of being ridiculed, fear of not being accepted, fear I mean of all kinds of things. Fear of losing your job … especially when you’re a single parent and you have to think about what the ramifications might be.”
She adds this very important point here: “I did get to the point where I said, ‘Okay, I might have to work but I don’t have to work here.’ But it takes a while to get there. As a woman, this is one of the things that I do believe is really important. But it takes a while … you have to give yourself permission to do some things right, say some things, take charge – of even your own self. After all that’s the hardest thing to manage.”
Susan Grayson Stone’s first response was, “Emotional intelligence, hard work, persistence, and fear. The survival instinct of a parent kicks in, and you have to just do whatever is needed to be the best you can at your career on behalf of your family.”
Several of the ladies alluded to skill sets that their male counterparts often overlooked. Specifically, “Being an active listener, both as a mentee and mentor,” was critical, according to Joyce Johnson.
Ms. Johnson further added, “Really understanding how to navigate a very difficult industry while remaining authentic. Authenticity comes from the fact that many of the men in my business use distressed investing as a way to argue, fight, and really be deliberate in their actions, as opposed to really analyzing the facts of investment and really learning how to be authentic and professional.
“I’ve been doing it a long time, and for the younger ladies, knowing your craft is obviously an educational learning curve, but also continuing to learn, learning different things. So I transferred, transformed 50 years ago from about 80 percent of domestic work in distressed and troubled investing to 80 percent of contractional work, which allows you to hone your craft, but continue to learn and expand.”
“After probably 10 to 12 years, I started living my priorities. Sit down. What is important? Where does this career, this specific job, where does it fit in everything else? And you have to make decisions, run your priorities. If other people don’t like it, at least you’re okay with yourself,” said Sheila Parker Tolle
Author’s note: I’m grateful that these ladies made space to ensure their stories were told. They did so in the good faith that their words would be used to inform, encourage, and uplift other women aiming to have similar success. As each pointed out, we’re in this together. It is with fortitude and perseverance that our talents, skills and vision make real change in our organizations and communities.
Stay tuned for more insights in upcoming articles that are sure to help shape the growth and opportunities for success for other women desiring their own space at the corporate table.
- Jennifer Browne – VP, Global Services, Salesforce
- Michele Carroll – Founder, & President, Carrollco Marketing Services and VP Partnerships/Past President, CSCMP Silicon Valley/SF Roundtable
- Caretha Coleman – Founder, Coleman Consulting
- Susan Grayson Stone – COO, Adnant
- Jennifer Hochstatter – VP, Supply Chain and Operations Executive, Juul Labs
- Sharon John – President and COO, Build A Bear Workshop
- Joyce Johnson-Miller – Chairman, New Lake Capital Partners – Ticker NLCP
- Carmela D Krantz – Founder/CEO WOVEN Human Resources and Executive Coach
- Mary Maroun – Collective Consultant and Former President, Arnold Worldwide and Former President, Managing Partner, Young and Rubicam
- Jean Phillips – Executive Consultant. Former Chief of Staff, Kaiser Permanente
- Deb Atwater-Robles – Director of Incentive Compensation, Mercer Advisors
- Gretchen Salyer – Founder, CEO, June Care
- Sheila Parker Tolle – Advisor, Biospectal; Retired Marketing Leader and Former Principal, Tolle Marketing Consultancy
About the Author
Sara Loos is a certified Results & Impact coach who, for almost 20 years, has been helping professional women turn burn-out into acceleration so they can stay in their careers and play bigger. Her results, as are her methods, are far from ordinary. Sara has a BA in Communications and had a successful career as a high-level marketing and advertising executive for Fortune 500 companies in New York City and Los Angeles.