Women make up nearly half of the US workforce, but only 5% of CEOs within the list of S&P 500 companies are women. These statistics are indeed disheartening, but more broadly they should also draw attention to a gender gap that won’t go away on its own.
Business leaders can proactively take steps to accelerate women’s careers, starting by supporting their ambitions. At PwC’s Women in Deals networking event in Los Angeles recently, Jeri Harman, founder of Avante Capital Partners, and Alyse Wagner, a partner at Leonard Green & Partners, discussed how women can stay ambitious throughout their careers. They offered an array of insight, and here are 5 key lessons that anyone with big goals, especially women, can apply to their own careers:
It’s hard to be ambitious without also thinking big. While female entrepreneurs have the skills and capability to start successful companies, women are less inclined than men to talk about how great they are, says Jeri, pointing to a Kauffman Foundation study. “A woman starting a business, for instance, will say she’s made it once she hits $10 million in revenue, whereas a man will say he’ll have made it once he hits $1 billion. The former may be more realistic than the latter, but when thinking big is not part of your ambition, it’s very hard to find the gumption to reach more lofty goals.”
The lesson here is to aim to do more than you could ever imagine, and support others – especially women – to do the same.
Say you’re an introvert, but most people at your company (and its clients) are extroverts. This doesn’t mean you have to suddenly change who you are to build critical relationships and have an impact. Alyse, a self-proclaimed introvert, didn’t. Throughout her career as an investment banker and more recently at Leonard Green & Partners, she embraced her style and learned how to make it work to her advantage. “I’m usually not the loudest voice in the room, but from experience I’ve learned that people will listen if you’re spot on and have something substantive to say.” Alyse also learned to find ways to navigate different personalities through the years. “If I’m going out to dinner with a client who I know likes sports and I don’t, I’ll invite an associate who is also a sports fan to join us.”
It’s easy for many women to feel like they need to be ‘one of the guys” to fit in, especially if they work in finance or other male-dominated industries. But being authentic can also lead to opportunities.
Nobody can succeed on their own, and nobody should have to. At some point in your career, you’ll need help. You may worry that it could come off as a sign of weakness but asking for help is a smart thing to do, especially if you know who to ask and when to ask for it, says Jeri, who started her career at Prudential Capital and was managing director of Allied Capital before founding Avante Capital Partners in 2008 during the Great Recession. “As my career advanced, I learned that I needed to surround myself with a group of trusted advisors – some internal and some external. You don’t want all your advisors to be internal because there’s a risk that some might not be able to see things objectively or they might not turn out to be as trustworthy as you think.”
Building a network of people who you can candidly talk to can make all the difference in your career, especially as you become more senior and need to navigate nuances that naturally come with overseeing bigger teams and projects.
Deals is a transactional business where the day-to-day gets very busy. But the immediate need of leading or supporting a transaction can take away time from building longer-term relationships that could help your career or lead to new business, says Alyse, who leads healthcare investing at Leonard Green. “Talking to lawyers to move a transaction forward is definitely an important part of the job, but it’s also important to make time to meet with investment bankers or go to conferences to meet with companies that may not be for sale now but maybe later down the road.”
Treat your career as if it were a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not just about checking off the boxes day-to-day. Thinking longer term and nurturing relationships for the long haul can certainly carve a career path that will continually open new opportunities.
Meaningful praise can improve your brain’s ability to remember and repeat new skills, as well as measurably boost motivation and performance, research shows. However, many have a tough time accepting compliments, and some suggest that it’s particularly difficult for women. Whether the gender difference is true or not, there are ways to accept compliments with grace, Jeri says. “I am always talking up others and more often than not it comes back to me in a positive way without me asking for it.”
Whenever possible, Jeri adds, it’s also important to support other women – acknowledging what they’re saying in a group or in a meeting so that they’re seen and heard. This not only makes them feel confident, but it can also heighten their visibility with influential people and help them accelerate their careers.
Overall, there are many actions women can take to stay ambitious and advance their careers. However, their efforts have limited impact without the recognition and support of others in their organizations. So next time a female colleague meets a goal or deadline or is simply a great person to work with, give her the recognition she deserves.