What Does It Take To Be An Executive?

At first glance the glass ceiling shows little sign of cracking for women looking to rise up through the corporate ranks. Britain’s top 100 firms employ just 20 female executive directors between them – 7% of the total. But, this tiny number is actually a big increase from Lord Davies’ report on Women in Boards in 2011, when women held just 5.7% of those roles. So things are moving in the right direction. Slowly.

Pressure is building. A mountain of academic evidence fairly conclusively shows that companies with more balanced gender leadership perform better on every measure of performance. Mandatory boardroom gender quotas have been introduced in Norway, France, Italy and Spain. As political pressure builds, the focus in the UK has shifted to the pipeline of female executives.

It is good news for ambitious women who want to build a career in corporate business. So, what can you do to improve your own chances of success? What does it take to be an executive? What can we learn from women who have already succeeded?

1.  Focus on strategy and tactics  Most top level executives avoid getting bogged down in detail; their role is to contribute to the company’s long term vision and to ensure that it is executed. More often than not, you will develop your own vision in line with the organisation’s  and you’ll take responsibility for delivering the associated objectives. “You must have a vision of where you want to be and you also have to have the operational know-how to get there. You need strategy and tactics to succeed,” says Janet Hsu COO of Sanrio, the Japanese licenser and retailer behind the Hello Kitty brand.

2.  Be on top of industry trends   Successful executives have a deep knowledge of their industry. You need to have “a thorough understanding of the business and what makes the business tick”, says Pam Nicholson, COO of Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Your reports will have no doubt that you are on top of your area. They won’t see the hours you spend monitoring events in competitor companies, analysing market shifts and consumer trends and assessing investment risks. For senior executives it means being an astute manager, an avid reader, a conference and seminar enthusiast, and a resourceful individual.

3.  Communication   Excellent communication skills are essential at every level. You need to get your point across clearly and concisely, whether that’s in a meeting, negotiation or networking with colleagues or clients. And you also need to seize opportunities to stand out. “For a lot of women, they think the myth is true, that if they just do a good job and work hard, they’ll get recognized. That’s not the case,” says Fortune 500 CEO Maggie Wilderotter. The way you present yourself is just as important as what you say. For women, it is particularly important to get the balance right between approachability and authority. We’re socialised to want to be liked, but as a senior executive you need to be able to assert authority at the same time.  Executive presentation skills training can help you to use body language and voice dynamics to make the right kind of impact.

4.  Manage people and resources  Emotional intelligence is a critical attribute for effective executives these days. This combination of self-awareness and sensitivity to others’ feelings is where women often excel. Emotionally intelligent managers lead staff, subordinates and task-teams without seeming bossy or insensitive. It’s a style of management that results in both increased loyalty and productivity. It also gives you a sharp eye for talent, which is a critical executive skill according to Pam Nicholson.” You need to surround yourself with really good people,” she says.

5. Mentoring  This is a recurring theme from successful female executives. Find people you admire, spend time with them and learn. Maggie Wilderotter says that she regularly picked the brains of senior colleagues: “I had many mentors, and they didn’t know it.” And don’t forget to pass it forward and offer mentoring support to others as well.

The tide may be about to turn for executive women. Make sure that you have those 5 key skills in place so that you can make the most of opportunities when they come along.

Quotes from wsj.com and ft.com

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