How Women Lead: Success Is Often About Creating Your Own Career Path

By Sharon Hadry and Laura Henderson

In business, following the rules can slow your progress.

Women often believe that you succeed by following the rules and doing what you are told. Karen Wimbish, Director of Retail Retirement at Wells Fargo, says she wishes she had been less intent on following the rules.

Leaders take risks, seek out challenging assignments, are flexible, and consistently innovate. They move horizontally as well as up the hierarchy. They create their own path.

“I was very much a follower,” says Karen Wimbish. “But progressing in your career is not about following the rules. There’s no syllabus to getting ahead, and I had to stretch in ways that were uncomfortable to me.”

Don’t always follow the traditional path

Go beyond accepted wisdom about the correct way to do things. Where others see barriers, the most successful women see opportunities. Where others believe the best way to accomplish a goal is the proven way, successful women leaders believe there may be a different, better process, and they set out to find and implement it.

We asked successful women business leaders what they did to gain the experience and credentials they needed to achieve their goals. Rather than following a route prescribed by tradition, they sought out ways to gain experience, expand their horizons, and stand out as innovators and leaders who make things happen.

They made certain that they learned about the company’s operations, finances, and strategic directions as well as getting to know the right people. While they followed paths of their own creation, they also pointed out that there are some credentials that are foundational, that you cannot ignore.

In this chapter, we share with you both — the basics and the options. Not every action works for every career; use these recommendations as a foundation for designing your personalized career path and achieving your aspirations.

Choose the right place to work

Whether you are transitioning between companies or just starting out, go beyond the position being offered and take time to analyze the company’s values, culture, and management styles. If these factors align with your personal values, you are more likely to be in a position to grow and advance.

Investigate the culture of the company you are considering joining. Don’t allow the attraction of a specific opportunity blind you to the importance of the culture. Jobs can change, but cultures remain constant.

Monica Luechtefeld says, “Choose a company to work for based on how well its values match your values. The values of the company are more important than the specific job you are being offered.” Make certain the company is one where you will be proud to say you work there, where you will enjoy going to work every day, and where there is potential for you to grow, learn, advance, and flourish.

Maria Coyne says, “It was important to me to join a company whose values reflected my personal values. To this day, that is the reason I stay at the bank.”

Too many women do not appreciate the importance of the fit between their values and the organization. Susan Helstab says that at the start of her career, “I didn’t appreciate how important the values of an organization were going to be to me. Now, when I give career advice, it is to identify the goodness of fit between your personal values and the values of the organization.”

Smaller companies: a great training ground

For some people, the culture and opportunities at a smaller com-pany or an entrepreneurial start-up may provide the career development and personal development they are seeking. You could do this to launch your career or later in your career as a growth opportunity.

Smaller companies can provide a great training ground at any point in your career. You are likely to be given more responsibility earlier, work more closely with the top management from the beginning, and have a greater opportunity to make an impact on the strategic direction of the business than you would have in a large corporation.

As your career progresses, joining a smaller company can offer challenges and opportunities for personal growth not as readily available in a large organization. Joining a small company also can carry a higher level of risk. Pay and benefits may not be as generous, and there is a greater potential that the company could go out of business. You have to be ready to accept the potential risks as well as the rewards.

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However, the career advancement you achieve can position you for more senior positions, if you move to a larger organization. It can also bring substantial personal wealth if you have received stock in lieu of higher salary and the company goes public.

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and No. 12 on Fortune magazine’s list of the “100 Most Powerful Women,” says her priority in pursuing a job is the opportunity it affords her for personal growth. She found the best opportunities for growth were in smaller companies where she could influence the com-pany’s growth strategies and, not inconsequentially, build personal wealth.

Moving to a small company named Google

Sheryl is a graduate of the Harvard Business School, where she got to know Larry Summers, who was on the faculty. After college, she worked for McKinsey & Company. When Larry Summers became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, she was his Chief of Staff. When she left government, she moved to Silicon Valley, where she was attracted to the opportunities offered by a small, three-year-old company called Google.

She was willing to accept the risk that came with this opportunity. At Google, she identified new market opportunities for the company and created, from scratch, its game-changing global online sales operation. Ready for a new challenge after six years at Google, she started exploring options both inside the company and with other organizations.

Although Sheryl was in discussions with several large corporations, she was intrigued when Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, called. What was important to her was to work with someone whose values she shared and to have an opportunity to create something that did not exist. She saw in the growth potential of the social media company a new career challenge and a personal growth opportunity.

Once again, she was willing to take the risks that come with joining a young start-up. So despite offers to join estab- lished enterprises, she moved to Facebook, where she reported to the 26-year-old founder of a company that was bleeding cash.

Today, having created the strategy for making the company highly profitable, she is a key player in taking Facebook public. What attracted her first to Google and then to Facebook was the opportunity to be instru- mental in transforming the companies into profitable, international, high-growth enterprises.

In the final analysis, the most important consideration is not the size of the company but whether the company’s culture is one that will allow you to contribute to at your highest level, encourage you to grow, and help you to develop. One of the reasons Sheryl Sandberg gave for joining Facebook was that it was a company driven by instinct and human relations.

Use your values as the filter to make your decision. If you have any doubts about the organization, do not get carried away by the opportunity of a single job.

Excerpted with permission from How Women Lead – The 8 Successful Strategies Successful Women Know, copyright 2013 by Sharon Hadary and Laura Henderson. Published by McGraw-Hill, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY.

Sharon Hadary is Principal of Sharon Hadary & Co., and founder and former executive director of the Center for Women's Business Reasearch. She teaches, writes, and speaks nationally on the subject of women’s leadership. Contact her at Laura Henderson is President of Henderson Associates and founder and former President and CEO of Prospect Associates. She teaches leadership in the University of Maryland University College doctoral program. Contact her through her publicist at .