Business World

Ensuring career success in a challenging and constantly changing environment: some tips every woman should know. Italia Boninelli

Statistics show that while women constitute 52% of the population in South Africa, only 2,4% of CEO positions and only 29,3% of top management positions are filled by women.  Over the years, women have regularly approached me requesting my assistance in mentoring or coaching them. They would often pose the question: “Why is it so difficult to break through the glass ceiling?” Here are a few tips that I can offer based on:

(i) my personal experience in executive roles across different industries;

(ii) the insights gained from coaching women in senior management and executive roles; and

(iii) the results of a research study I conducted in a South African bank some years ago2, focused on identifying which factors differentiated the successful (mostly male) executives from the women lower down in the corporation who were struggling to break through.

1. Understanding the competencies required of the job at the next level

Most of the women I have coached are characterised by the perception that delivering good results at their current job level would eventually be noticed and earn them a promotion. But the initial strengths that led to promotions early in their careers can later become “fatal flaws” when women continue to repeat the same formula and fail to realize that success at the next level up is not ‘more of’ what they are currently doing but adding qualitatively different competencies and skills. If you have only a very loose understanding of how operating at a strategic level as an executive differs from what you are currently doing, there is little chance of building a coherent strategy for developing the additional skills and competencies required for the next level of work up.

Tip 1: Get a copy of the role description and KPIs of the job you aspire to, so you can start to assess what is really required to succeed and what your gaps might be.

2. Bridging the gaps

Successful executives put in place some key practices to enhance their skills in areas where they have gaps or staff their teams with people with appropriate skills who can compensate. For example, in order to improve decision-making and judgement, one needs to be informed of best practice, be able to identify developing trends and be fully in touch with how customers, staff and other key stakeholders’ expectations are being met. Ask yourself: “How good is my environmental scanning? What feedback loops have I created? Is ‘Best Practice’ part of my ongoing plan?”

Tip 2: Utilise an array of techniques to build (or compensate for) skills you lack and which you may previously have overlooked in favour of an inward and operational focus on the current job.

3. Insufficient long-term career planning and risk propensity

It is all too easy to get caught up in dozens of e-mails a day, ten meetings a day and five crises a day and arrive at the end of the year exhausted but with nothing of great significance to show for all the effort. Many of the successful executives set clear career goals for each career cycle of 3-5 years and even write their CV that way – on the first page is usually a set of ‘key achievements’. These executives also show a higher risk propensity and will take a job that is somewhat outside their normal area of expertise because it represents an opportunity to gain experience in a new area or because taking a high profile job and being very visible in any subsequent success is seen as a career-enhancing move. Even when such moves proved less than successful, they seemed better able than women to capitalise on the learning experience and avoid immobilising self-doubt, accepting the lack of success as a short-term situation.

Tip 3: Identify which two or three ‘key achievements’ you hope to complete in the next two-three year career cycle and create the time and mental space not to mention the resources to ensure you achieve these.

4. Breadth vs. depth of skills

Almost all managers display significant depth of experience which has supported their career success thus far. However, many women spend considerably more time in staff or specialist roles rather than in line roles, while the managers who later make successful executives had made frequent job changes and career shifts and as a result were more knowledgeable about different functions and divisions. They were thus better able to provide integrated solutions born out of a wider perspective of the organization.

Tip 4: Take every opportunity to build the breadth of your business acumen and to demonstrate your ability to generate solutions across the business value chain, and not just within your discipline.

5. Mentors, coaches and development plans

Many women report that they do not have mentors or coaches and that developmental plans are not regularly discussed with them by their managers. While this reflects poorly on their managers who are not actively developing them, it reflects equally poorly on the women themselves who have not taken proactive steps to address this shortcoming. The majority of successful executives report having had a strong mentor and/or coach at critical points of their career and also mentioned having taking taken proactive steps at the early stages of their career in approaching someone in a senior position and asking to be mentored.

Tip 5: Stop waiting for someone to assign you a mentor or coach. Go out and seek one – just be realistic as to the time availability of senior people with busy calendars.

6. Networking and relationship management

Many successful executives display a characteristic pattern of networking that differs from that of other groups. This networking can best be described as the strategic way people manage relationships to make themselves more effective and to leverage the solutions they can offer.

Women tend to see networking as they would personal friendships i.e. requiring a level of emotional commitment usually reserved for only a handful of close relatives and friends.

Successful executives use networking to establish ‘Contacts’ who can provide them with information, influence, introductions, invitations, access and power that can really help leverage the solutions they can develop. While women typically reported having a network of 30-50 people at that level, the successful executives reported networks of in excess of 200 people.

Tip 6: Rethink your networking strategies. First step is to realise what you have of value to offer (refer to those ‘key achievements’) and then work out what other people have of value to offer and accept that networking is like an exchange of commodities.

7. Self-esteem & Personal branding

Many of the executives in Group 1 had an instinctive grasp of personal branding and used this to their advantage, compared to the relative modesty that characterised the women who often failed to take credit for their successes or did not market and brand themselves well. They often failed to project an image of self-confidence or at times ‘over-compensated’ coming across as overly aggressive and ‘more of a man than the men’.

Tip 7: Personal branding is a skill that can be learnt and effectively applied.


Females may lack certain key skills or competencies required for higher managerial or executive functioning, which were not adequately covered in past developmental programmes, appraisal processes or job exposure. But this is not irremediable – as has clearly been shown. Organizations in turn need to address the cultural and organizational climate issues which create unnatural barriers to the progression of women. They can also provide the training and development opportunities and the access to mentors and coaches which would ensure that more women are enabled to reach the top layers of the organization.


The ‘glass ceiling’ can best be described as that invisible barrier that allows you to see to the top of the corporate ladder but blocks off access to the top rungs.

30% Club Southern Africa

Colleen Larsen



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