Lessons learned from successful women leaders
What makes a great leader? It’s a seemingly simple question that is very difficult to answer in reality. There are different viewpoints as to what makes someone a truly effective leader. Some believe a great leader is born and not made, while others think leadership is a learned skill. There are certain characteristics that all good leaders share, such as, competency, confidence, vision, honesty and passion. As we celebrate women’s history month this March, we look to successful women to see just what it takes to be a great leader.
Fortune’s 2015 list of the most powerful women in 2015 included 27 CEOs, with Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, and Indra Nooyi, CEO and Chairman of PepsiCo, topping the list. However, as of Feb. 1, 2016, women held just 4 percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. Women held 14 percent of CFO posts at Fortune 500 businesses at the end of last year, a 2 percent increase from 2014. While improving slowly, it is still low considering that women made up 47 percent of the workforce in 2012 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Strong women leaders, while few in numbers, are often pushed into the spotlight, which is a good thing, because it provides role models for young women. Clearly, organizations need to do more, and the issue of gender diversity is not just about women’s rights. Studies have shown that organizations with diverse leaders and a high representation of women board members outperform those companies with none. A successful company needs leaders with diverse experiences and backgrounds.
Men and women both possess key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, and some argue women are stronger than men in terms of being compassionate, organized leaders. So why are there so few women at the top? Women seeking to climb to the highest levels of business often face a double standard where they have to do more than their male counterparts to prove themselves. That’s a challenge, as is balancing career and family.
Look at traditionally male-dominated careers such as public accounting and by the time you reach the partner and leadership ranks, women are missing. Many women leave public accounting at the senior and manager level for careers in industry or entrepreneurship. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012, women make up 60.0 percent of all accountants and auditors in the United States, but in 2013, women made up only 21 percent of all partners at accounting firms (Catalyst Survey).
“Too many women lose confidence as their careers progress and stop aiming for leadership roles,” says Lynne Doughtie, who was named chairman and CEO of KPMG last year. “While those aspiring leaders must seek mentors and sponsors, they cannot do the work alone. As women leaders we have to give them the confidence back and tell them you can do this and as a company, we are here to help you.”
Strong women leaders credit success to learning from role models, managing time and multi-tasking. There is no shortage of intelligent, capable women who want to lead, but something is holding them back. Important factors to success are confidence and connections. Organizations need to do more to help build confidence, rather than question abilities. To build a steady pipeline of women leaders, the path to leadership must be discussed early on. Women should be encouraged to lead, and have visible role models. As women see more women in leadership, they are encouraged they can get there, too.
Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin’s first female CEO, said one of the keys to her success at the world’s largest defense contractor was never turning down a promotion, even though it meant moving her family eight times over the course of her career. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, said: “I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.”
The key traits are clear: confidence, passion and determination. As Martin Luther King Jr., said: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
Neena Shukla, CPA, CFE, CGMA, FCPA is a senior assurance manager and government contracting niche leader at PBMares LLP, in Fairfax. She is also the leader of the firm’s technical and emerging issues group and member of the Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants. Contact her at [email protected].