15 ways for women to rise to the top

women1ontop250Female participation on the entrepreneurial playing field has not just stagnated, it has gone backwards. We dissect what is holding women back, but more importantly outline important and pro-active steps that every woman in business can take to make positive change.

When I first went into business 25 years ago, I was looking forward to change. At every senior level in my industry – publishing – there were blokes. I spent all day interviewing senior leaders of business – and they too were blokes.

But when I looked at the young women streaming into business and taking up accounting courses and engineering courses, I, like a lot of women, just thought it was a matter of time before the talent rose to the top.

But it hasn’t.

Recent data from Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace shows that figures on female participation in the workplace have lost ground since 2006. “More than half the companies in the ASX200 have no women on their boards,” says Barbara West, director of consultancy 100% Project. “Only 2% of chairs and chief executives of boards are women, only 8.3% of board directors are women, and only 10% at the executive management level are women.”

Women are not leaving in droves either to start fast growing businesses. Only 17% of Australian businesses are run by an individual female or predominantly by females. Award lists such as the Smart50 never have more than 20% of women make the list.

So what is holding women back, and what can they do about it? Here are 15 ways for women to get ahead, gleaned from countless interviews with successful business women and entrepreneurs, research projects, some conducted with RMIT University, and scouring research from around the world.


1. Stop being so good at your job

The other day, an events organiser working for a state government said to me, “I just love to focus on my job”. In the next breath she says her boss told her to be more strategic and focus on the big picture. “But I don’t have time for that, because I have to focus on doing a good job.”

A study in the Harvard Business Review last month looked at thousands of 360-degree assessments collected by an executive education program. It found that while women outshone men on most of the leadership dimensions measured, there was one startling exception – the ability to recognise new opportunities and trends, and develop a strategic direction for an enterprise.

Surely one exception should not matter – except that ability was the most highly prized by men when looking for leaders. Women, who are very strong on the technical elements of their job and have their nose to the grindstone, can be easily overlooked for promotion.

The good news is that this is a capability that can be learnt, and there are lots of courses that can help you develop those skills. So look up, think strategically, develop a vision, and work very hard to communicate that to stakeholders.

Oh, and don’t think you do not have time to think strategically because you are the only person in the world who can do your job. The skills shortage has eased, and there are a lot of talented people who can step into your shoes and probably do your job better.


2. Get comfortable talking about money and ambition

Here is what SmartCompany reader Jodie Benveniste, director of Parent Wellbeing wrote to us: “Recently I sat around the table with a group of business women talking about our visions for our businesses, and there was a sense of embarrassment or shame when it came to discussing money. If someone said ‘I want to make a truckload of money’, it was quickly qualified by ‘and of course contribute significantly to society’. Personally, my vision involves building an empire (and not just a business). But I often come up against people who warn you against hiring staff or expanding beyond a home office. And sometimes I doubt my vision.”

In 2006 I researched 100 successful female entrepreneurs and found that 28% say they hate to talk about money, and most agree that men are far more at ease talking about money than women.

About 54% of the female entrepreneurs interviewed also admitted that they are conditioned to take less risk. The message seemed to be that culturally in Australia it is still not acceptable for women to want to make money, talk about money, and express ambition.

With so few business women talking money, the culture does not change.

Make it a point to discuss funding. Talk about the company’s revenue and be open about your ambition. When seeking funding, don’t try and scrimp on funds. A very smart entrepreneur once passed on her tip – whenever she has to deal with money, she works out what she needs, then she shuts her eyes and doubles it. “I always get what I ask for,” she says. And don’t forget you can make a much bigger difference with money than without it.

And if you want a pay rise? Ask. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” says successful female entrepreneur Gillian Franklin, founder of The Heat Group.


3. Get noticed by men who only look to their own networks

Earlier this week, two senior business leaders called on quotas to ensure better representation of women to be introduced. Former Victorian chief commissioner of police Christine Nixon, and Margaret Jackson, former director of Qantas and ANZ Bank and director of Flexigroup, said they expected far greater progress by now.

Jackson says that women in exit interviews say that men in senior positions like to surround themselves with men “who look like them, and talk like them”.

Join the right groups (see below), network with purpose, talk strategy and vision, and talk about the value you will bring. Make sure you have the right qualifications and contacts who can introduce you deeply into the networks.

Jackson also made the point that in a recession, while it can spark people to look outside their networks, it can also cause people to retreat back further to what they know. So expect that in the next year some men may get even more insular when casting around for additions to senior teams.

Di Gribble, founder of Private Media, says women should learn to keep their powder dry. “Some men in the boardroom only hear ‘yak, yak, yak’. Women need to learn to talk when they have something important to say.”

Sales consultant Debra Templar says that when women get stressed they talk in a high pitched voice. “We squeak, so take a deep breath and lower your voice and speak more slowly.” Trivial? Maybe. But it all helps.


4. Join the right networks and get the right assistance

My survey of female entrepreneurs showed that even though they were successful, few use industry groups, consultants, business coaches or government bodies.

Research from the European Business School in Germany also shows women have a limited access to social networks that are crucial for career development. They also have a tendency to avoid occupational activities, which eats into their individual free time.

Male entrepreneurs did make a more intense use of formal networks, while females made more intense use of informal networks (friends and family).

The research says that too much time spent networking with family and friends is likely to be counter-productive. It might be enjoyable, but it is not productive.


5. Learn how to close a deal

Women are often perceived as having soft skills. Some women also often tell me they have trouble closing deals. Going for the close requires a unique set of skills. If you are not good at it, do something about it. Either learn how to do it or take a “closer” to meetings. Let the closer do the deal and don’t interfere.


6. Help other women up the ladder

One of the criticisms levelled against the top senior level of business women is that many have kept silent about the barriers in their way. They loudly proclaim there is no sexism and if they can do it, so can other women.

Former chief commissioner of Victoria, Christine Nixon, says she has observed some women get to the top, and think it does not matter about the others coming under them. “It’s very important that they put the ladder down and help others up,” she says. Nixon says she gets annoyed when she sees women not helping others. “I call them on it,” she said. “And you should too.”


7. Deal with the sexist bully

Often you will run into the sexist bully in middle management. Entrepreneur David Smorgan has some invaluable advice. “Talk to the head, not the arse,” he says.

The advise is simple. Never put up with a bully. Companies are now well versed in procedures to deal with bullies. Take careful note of their actions and report it to their bosses. If you are dragged into the bully’s games, get some therapy to deal with your “victim” traits.

Recognise subtle forms of bullying such as people playing power games or bulldozing decisions behind your back. Some women use passive aggressive methods, which should always be addressed as swiftly as more overt forms of bullying. The successful entrepreneurs learn to look for these traits when recruiting or dealing with clients. Many say they don’t recruit older men with entrenched attitudes.


8. Outsource everything, including the kids

A common trap for business women is to take on a whole range of small tasks, from preparing invoices to paying the wages. The thinking is “I can do everything quicker, faster, better, and I can do it right now”.

Learn how to prioritise, delegate and outsource. Remember point one about strategy? Outsourcing becomes part of your strategy. Don’t forget, your cleaner can cook far better than you, and the nanny can get the kids ready for dinner, leaving you time to sit down and focus on some quality time with the kids over a home cooked meal.

And when people are looking for someone to do something, don’t put your hand up. Nominate a man and then suggest you take over something he is doing – that is strategic and clever, and likely to move you up the ranks.

When it comes to your children, work out what attention is enough.

One prominent business woman who has nine children says she goes to bed at night and runs through the children’s names in her head. If a sense of unease came up in her mind, she would spend more time with that child the next day.


9. Get tough with staff; they are not your friends

Much is made of the “special” traits of women, which include a consultative, inclusive style of management, as opposed to a hierarchical, aggressive style. But this can lead to problems – they are too soft on staff, who subsequently take advantage of them.

How are you friendly with staff without befriending them? You adhere to the invisible line, which you do not cross – even when you are bored and looking for a chat! Don’t sit around yacking to staff. Go out and find some new customers. When staff approach you with their personal problems, always resist getting involved.

When they come asking to take a half day off saying they have “a personal issue to deal with” don’t ask what issue. Tell them to put in a leave form.

But you also run a fun, fair and friendly environment. You create the jobs that let them take out a mortgage and raise a family. But let them get their own friends.


10. Men don’t work four days. Why should you?

Men are the most astonishing creatures. They openly talk in the office about going to the gym, getting their haircuts, taking the afternoon off to get drunk because it is their birthday, going to a corporate golf day or simply leaving early to pick up the kids.

What do women do? They get paid for a four day week and then do everything else on the other day – that day when they don’t get paid.

Women need to be much more forthright at work about their activities, especially when they run their own business.

Carolyn Creswell, who runs Carmens Fine Foods, talked in an article about working nine to five and letting everyone know they are her hours. Margaret Jackson says she learnt to say no to early breakfast meetings. The repercussions? The board would simply schedule the meetings at 9am.


11. Find time and brain space to read that BlackBerry brochure

The other day I talked to a group of women about how they need to embrace technology, and there was a universal groan across the room. While there are some keen female geeks, many women lag in the take-up of new technology. They report that the technical language is confusing and they simply don’t have time to come to grips with it.

Change your thinking. Technology saves you time. Put the energy in upfront, find the time and find someone who speaks e-english.

It is crucial you follow the evolution of websites – which are NOT online brochures. They are your best selling tool and should be getting you 20% to 30% of your revenue. Now that’s a real time and cost saver.


12. Get rid of an unsupportive spouse

If your partner is not supportive of your business, it might be time to trade up. Behind most successful female entrepreneurs is a very supportive life partner. In my research, the majority (68%) of successful business women, when asked what has been a very significant help in expanding the business, report that their spouse was of enormous help.

Equally, women report that one of the biggest drawbacks is an unsupportive spouse, and a spouse that is resentful about earning less money.


13. Plan your way up the ladder

Many women get locked into “soft” jobs such as marketing and HR and then move from company to company seeking advancement. Instead, look at the rungs in the ladder and work your way up.

Look for line responsibility, general manager positions, before snatching CEO and director positions. Study the paths of people you know who have achieved those positions and look at their resumes and education. Get strategic and hard nosed so you go up – not sideways.

Nixon says she would regularly pull women out of specialist jobs and give them experience they would not get otherwise that would then assist them gain promotion.


14. Don’t feel guilty. Ever

One of the things often mentioned by women is guilt – guilt that they are not a good mother, they are not good employees, they are not good leaders.

Carmelina Pascoe from My Coffee Shop sums it up: “It’s bad enough that both mothers and fathers have to sacrifice their time with their families to start a business. It’s criminal that mothers also get a guilt trip laid on them for doing so. We’re already berating ourselves about this without the community’s help.

Work on those negative messages. Get rid of any jealous, negative people who pull you down and surround yourself with people who support your vision.


15. Get lots of “coffee” mentors

Mentors can be informal coffee pals – people you have coffee with every few months – or they can be on board as advisers or members of your board.

Ask their advise and seek their views. Look for successful business people in your industry or other industries to act as mentors. You are looking for solid business experience. Make sure you read widely on other people’s experience (see SmartCompany case studies, for example).



Don’t forget to register for our next webinar entitled It’s a man’s world: how female entrepreneurs overcome to be held on Friday, 6 March. To celebrate International Women’s Day, join Diana Gribble, Gillian Franklin and Kristina Karlsson to address and answer your questions on the big issues facing women in business today.


Visit Women’s Agenda for more news and advice for professional women.



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