5 Game-Changing CEO Insights for Women Leaders

Want to be CEO? Here’s how to overcome some of the most common challenges faced by women leaders on their journey to the top.

Only 5% of CEOs globally are women. 

Yes, we’re seeing more women in C-suite positions, but by no means have we reached gender equality in the Boardroom. This is despite many women expressing a desire to step up.

So, what’s happening? And what can we do to change it?

Having met with hundreds of WeQual Awards finalists, as well as CEOs at the top of the world’s largest organizations, WeQual’s Founder, Katie Litchfield, has identified five of the most common challenges women face on the path to the C-suite.

CEOs have told us that women often hesitate to put themselves forward for promotions and opportunities, waiting to be invited instead of actively pursuing their goals.

“70% of women at the executive level lack a clearly defined career plan,” says WeQual’s CEO Mark Bateman. “Even when they have one, they’re often reluctant to articulate it.”

Other barriers include self-doubt, uncertainty around authentic communication, a lack of transferable skills, strategic thinking and goal clarity.

Here are five of the key takeaways we’ve learned from CEOs at the very top of their game.

1 Be Proactive and Ambitious

Does a woman’s ambition typically look different to a man’s?

Some of the examples of feedback we’ve heard from CEOs include: ‘I get a sense she’s waiting to be invited for that promotion,’ and: ‘She has to be hungry enough that she puts herself forward.’

As a woman, if you’re not shouting loudly enough about your ambitions, it’s a barrier to earning that seat at the table.

So, how can you communicate your ambitions more proactively?

Be Intentional 

Clearly define your career objectives. Think about the legacy you want to leave when you retire – what is it you want to have achieved? This clarity will guide how you talk about yourself, how you engage with others, and the steps you take in your career.

Know Your Audience 

Tailoring your communication to suit your audience is vital. Consider how you would respond to a team member sharing their career goals with you and apply the same approach to yourself.

When engaging with senior stakeholders, recognize that seizing an opportunity to discuss your career aspirations can be a game-changer. Once you have clarity, don’t hesitate to verbalize your ambitions, adapting to the context of your audience.

Maintain a Living, Breathing Resume 

Your resume isn’t just a static document; it should be a living and breathing account of your career achievements and impacts. Avoid becoming so consumed by your current role that you’re not seeing what you’ve already achieved or are capable of.

Libby Crossland, WeQual’s VP of Marketing and Executive Branding, advises to update your resume frequently with quantifiable achievements evidenced by facts, figures, stories and impact – even if you’re not looking for a career move. This reminds you of your capabilities and prepares you to address questions posed by potential stakeholders or future interviewers when the time comes. 

Understand that new roles are supposed to be challenging - this is where growth happens.

2 Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Putting ourselves out there as women leaders in a male-centric environment can be challenging.

“Commonly, male-associated behaviors and traits are accepted in the workplace whilst female traits are undervalued,” comments Mark.

“Unfortunately, here lies a paradox – women who adopt the same traits as men often find themselves being negatively labeled. Despite these inequities, it’s crucial not to allow this challenge to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you allow the fear of being branded as aggressive to stifle your voice, you’re ensuring that your desired outcomes will remain tantalizingly out of reach.”

CEOs told us: ‘She doesn’t know how good she is, she needs more confidence,’ and ‘Her comfort zone is being out of her comfort zone.’ Examples of two paradoxical pieces of feedback.

So, how can you improve your self-confidence and venture beyond your comfort zone? 

Embrace Growth

Understand that new roles are supposed to be challenging; this is where growth happens. Moving beyond your current level (and your comfort zone) provides an opportunity to develop and grow.

Own It

Using ‘I‘ instead of ‘we‘ when discussing your achievements might feel uncomfortable. However, it’s an essential step in showcasing your individual impact and overcoming self-doubt.

Try phrases such as ‘led the team that...’ or ‘I created the strategy for...’ while providing evidence of your impact. This approach will not only boost your confidence but also serve as a reminder of your exceptional capabilities. Remember, demonstrating impact extends beyond your accomplishments; you must highlight the significant difference your achievements made.

When dealing with people we perceive as more senior or powerful, we can unintentionally revert to a childlike state, seeking their approval. This power dynamic becomes unbalanced like an adult-to-child relationship.

3 Communicate Effectively and Authentically

We’re all guilty of unconscious bias when it comes to receiving messages from men vs women. This is why communication can become all the more complicated for women leaders in the corporate world.

CEOs delivered a mixed bag of feedback when it came to the communication skills of women leaders, from:  ‘She needs to learn to communicate with someone she doesn’t know,’ and ‘She needs to keep being a human in conversation’ to ‘She needs to be an effective listener,’ and ‘She started by talking about her family for ten minutes, didn’t get onto her career for a while, not ideal,’ and conversely, ‘I liked that she talked about her family.’

Mark shares two insights to help us better understand the nuanced world of communication for women at the top.

Transactional Analysis  

In professional interactions, we might unknowingly slip into roles reminiscent of interactions with caregivers in our childhood. When dealing with people we perceive as more senior or powerful, we can unintentionally revert to a childlike state, seeking their approval.

This power dynamic becomes unbalanced like an adult-to-child relationship. To ensure effective communication, strive for adult-to-adult conversations. This balanced approach is crucial for effective communication.

Emotional Intelligence

Another critical aspect of authentic communication involves recognizing and understanding the emotional cues from your audience. Imagine you’re in a meeting, and you notice that your counterpart is fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, and displaying signs of disinterest. A lack of emotional intelligence might lead you to continue discussing a topic that doesn’t engage them, hindering effective communication.

To strengthen this skill, hone your ability to recognize these subtle signals and steer conversations towards topics that resonate with both parties.

Once you have a clear vision of your goals, you can determine the specific steps required to reach them.

4 Nurture Transferable Skills and Experience

Would you consider yourself a risk-taker or somebody who plays it safe? How you feel about risk could have an impact on your next step.

She challenges the status quo and isn’t afraid to take risks,’ a CEO told us. And another one, ‘She’s not afraid of taking on challenges and is bold in her decision-making,’ ‘Great transferable skills, great collaboration skills, great IQ and EQ skills,’ and ‘She’s on the runway to bigger things, she just needs a little more runway before she gets there.’

Building upon the wisdom shared by these CEOs can help you gain a deeper understanding of the vital role of having confidence in your abilities and transferable skills.

So, how can you diversify your skillset to ensure you’re ready for the next step up?

Define Your Path 

Once you have a clear vision of your goals, you can determine the specific steps required to reach them. Knowing the impact you want to drive makes it easier to see how to get there.

Start by assessing the gap between where you are currently and where you would like to be. For example, if your ambition is to become a CEO, evaluate your current role to identify areas that need development, such as P&L experience and see where you could gain that skill – perhaps within another division of your organization. 

Understand Your Runway 

The concept of a runway, as perceived by interviewers, reflects the space available for an individual’s growth and development. It signifies the potential advancement beyond your current role. This means considering not only your present position but also the level of potential and the room you have left to grow.  

Nurture Your Transferable Skills 

Transferable skills are an invaluable yet often overlooked asset in your career. These skills extend beyond technical expertise and are highly sought after by Boards. Recognize the value of these skills and ensure to integrate them into your career development plan and resume.

The journey to the C-suite may be complex, but the path is illuminated with the wisdom of those who have navigated it successfully.

5 Think Strategically

One common pitfall in reaching the C-suite for women leaders is excelling at the technical aspects of your role while overlooking the importance of leadership and strategic thinking.

“When striving for promotion to the executive committee or other senior positions, transferable skills, such as strategic thinking and the ability to lead, are paramount,” says Mark.

The CEOs say: ‘She’s a strategic thinker with a results-oriented approach,’ ‘She needs to think more strategically if she wants to get to the top,’ ‘More strategic planning required,’ ‘Plan your route to the next role.

“Your ability to think strategically is not only vital in practice,” Mark adds, “but also when articulated on your resume. Demonstrating your strategic thinking and linking it to concrete results creates a compelling narrative.”

Updating your resume and showcasing the significant difference you drove in your team/project forces you to refine your language and ensure it aligns with what Boards are looking for. This prepares you to speak in the language of senior stakeholders, enhancing your strategic perspective and building your confidence.

These concepts are designed to help you think more strategically.

The Three Levels of Thinking

There are three distinct levels of thinking:

Learning

This level focuses on understanding the basics and getting things right, akin to learning a new skill.

Challenging Assumptions

At this level, you start questioning assumptions and beliefs, asking whether you’re doing the right thing within a broader context. This level requires more time and energy. Many people benefit from coaches and consultants as they provide an external perspective whilst challenging your thinking.

Alignment with Purpose and Values

The highest level of thinking is aligned with your purpose, mission, and values. It involves determining what’s ethically and strategically right for your organization. Achieving this level of thinking requires external input and time for critical thought. It’s where true transformation and lasting leadership excellence occur. “Only 5% of leaders operate at level-three thinking because it’s difficult,” says Mark “ – you must challenge everything. This thinking is where you drive transformation, you innovate, and you create sustainable competitive advantage.”

The journey to the C-suite may be complex, but the path is illuminated with the wisdom of those who have navigated it successfully. Remember to reach out to your peers for support – many face similar challenges, and insightful conversations are never far away.

WeQual members meet regularly to engage in honest discussions with other women leaders in a similar position.

Not a member? Join today > WeQual Executives

Thanks to our Guest Contributor:

Mark Bateman

CEO, WeQual

CEO, entrepreneur, Executive Coach, and best-selling author of the book 'Disruptive Leadership: Using Fire to Drive Purposeful Change'.