Learn how to secure career advancement – even in organizations that are doing too little to support women – with these ten tips for getting ahead.

Since the 1970s, many companies around the world have undertaken robust initiatives to remove the barriers to women’s advancement. Many of the first Fortune 500 women chief executives ascended in companies that worked seriously to remove roadblocks to women’s progression, like back-room promotion decisions, and started to challenge perceptions of gender dynamics which were influencing managers (“she wouldn’t want that job, she’s a mother”).

Today, in many large organizations there is a trend toward subsuming women’s initiatives into generalized diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training. Managers learn about the dynamics of bias, but receive virtually no specific education about how these generalized experiences of bias influence the decisions they make about women on their teams. DEI is seen as an HR initiative, not the responsibility of every manager, as my colleague Pascale Thorre, a global diversity, equity and inclusion director, points out.

“Many business leaders fully drive progress on DEI, but some don’t seize the opportunity to act on women’s empowerment – such as through mentoring, sponsoring, or asking for diversity data and diverse benches. They consider DEI as an HR-led project.” Worse, in some countries, companies are dragging their feet. “Where a legal framework exists, I have seen some organizations ticking the legal imperatives without trying to go beyond and embed DEI in their working culture,” adds Thorre.

Add this to the fact that most small and mid-sized companies don’t have the funds available to support DEI initiatives, and we’re left with the vast majority of women globally having to fend for themselves to advance in their careers.

What’s the solution? Here are ten pieces of advice to help secure career advancement, whatever your present situation.

What’s a woman to do?

The first and most important thing – which should go without saying – is that in whatever job you hold, it’s imperative that you meet or exceed the goals for which you’re responsible! Assuming that performance is in place, decades of research into the career paths of successful women around the world have surfaced these ten career accelerators.

1 Shine as a leader

Organizations need leadership at every level all the time. What does this mean for you? Taking action every day to fulfill my definition of leadership: using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness in others. Whether you are an individual in a call center, the manager of that call center or the director of the customer-facing function, begin each day by asking yourself what measurable outcomes you must achieve or advance, with whom you must successfully interact in order to make that progress, and what personal greatness you will draw on to do that.

My research (summarized in my Ted Talk, ‘The career advice you probably didn’t get’) discovered that women are generally expected to be good at engaging the greatness in others and have excellent personal qualities. In relation to outcomes, we are expected to get results – but not expected to have business, strategic and financial acumen. I call these three factors ‘The Missing 33%’.

Of course, this does not mean we don’t or can’t excel in these areas, but it reflects an underlying expectation among many managers that men will be interested in and demonstrate skills in these areas, while we women have to work extra hard to show them. If we do, we can shine as leaders regardless of our level.

2 The Missing 33% – business acumen

Acquiring and demonstrating business acumen, at its simplest, means understanding the whole business, the key outcomes by which business success is measured, and your role and that of your team(s) in advancing those outcomes. As an individual contributor, begin expanding your business acumen by learning how the adjacent functions in your value-creation chain work. How do things work in the areas that provide you with information, materials, products? What happens when you in turn send information, material or products up the value creation chain?

Understand how the metrics by which your performance is measured roll up to your boss and their boss’s metrics. Managers must know the overall structure of the business and how their teams facilitate goal achievement for other parts of the business.

3 The Missing 33% – financial acumen

No matter your level, ground your ideas and decisions in financial and other key non-financial metrics. These include company and industry-specific metrics related to cash generation and the cash position of the business, growth targets, revenue, expenses and productivity, and customer or consumer retention. A great place to start is by developing an understanding of quarterly earnings calls and annual reports. Ask how you and your team contribute to positive metrics that matter to the organization’s executives.

4 The Missing 33% – strategic acumen

This substantially differs by level. At more junior levels you will attend to company presentations about strategy and extrapolate how you and your colleagues contribute. In middle management you must understand how strategic initiatives are positioning the business for success, and your role in executing those changes. In senior roles, it falls to you to scan the external marketplace for opportunities and risks, set and communicate strategy, and keep the organization focused on internal changes that have to be met in order to deliver financial and other key metrics. At the very top, your primary role is to position the business for success in its marketplace.

The above advice is rarely given to women. I was fortunate to interview Anne Mulcahy, the former Xerox chief executive and chairwoman, about her role presiding over its amazing turnaround in the 2000s. At the time, she had been speaking at many women’s leadership events. I asked Mulcahy how she acquired the business, strategic and financial acumen that enabled her rise to the top. She answered, “No one has asked me this question before. It’s interesting because I think we do undervalue the real content-based experiences that give you the platform for business understanding and business knowledge.” That has long been to the detriment of women.

5 Speak the language of power

Understanding the business of business, is necessary but insufficient. You not only have to develop business, strategic and financial acumen: you must be able to show it by using the language of power, which overtly or subtly describes impact on business outcomes. The language of power has become even more important as companies have moved to hybrid work, where you must make your points, pitch an idea or even take issue with another’s idea virtually – often a less-than-ideal interpersonal setting. See Box 1 for examples of the language of power.

6 Watch your language

For years, women have been told to be succinct and to not use disclaimers and fillers. Even when using the language of power, a message that is not succinct or ambiguous is easily ignored (or claimed by someone else later in a meeting). Compare the statements in Box 2. Each contain the language of power, but which is more likely to have the desired impact?

Are there times to equivocate? Yes: for example, if you’re not certain about something when questioned, you might say, “We don’t have all the numbers in yet, so at this point I estimate that a 50% reduction in waste could lead to 10% increase in margin.” It is a strong statement, but one that allows room for revision later. Note that there are cross-cultural considerations to be taken into account here too. Working in more subtle or story-telling cultures could require you to soften your message.

7 Seek PIE mentoring to earn sponsorship

Since the 1970s women have been told to get a mentor – so it’s obvious that having a mentor is not enough. You need to ask for the kind of mentorship that will help you earn sponsors. This means PIE mentoring:

  • Helping you understand the performance of the business (helping develop your acumen). For example, reviewing quarterly earnings statements with you, explaining the factors behind new strategic initiatives, or giving insight into the overall business.
  • Helping you enhance your image as a leader – such as how you speak the language of power, your overall executive presence, and your leadership brand.
  • Provide exposure to how decisions are made at higher levels and in different units or functions. This could mean inviting you to shadow a more senior team meeting, explaining the factors in decisions with which you’re not involved, or pre-briefing you on a more senior agenda to explain why particular decisions will matter. A mentor can also expose you to others who might influence your career and help you earn supporters who will advocate for your career advancement.

8 Cultivate your leadership brand

Most advice on cultivating a personal brand focuses on makeovers or the personal attributes and strengths for which you want to be known. This is insufficient for higher level opportunities. At higher levels you want to have a reputation for your leadership (that is, one built on your business, strategic and financial acumen, your effectiveness in engaging others, and also your personal attributes and strengths).

Consider these two assessments of potential candidates for a senior position. “Terry engages the team, follows through on commitments, doesn’t pull any punches and delivers sales plans that hit regional growth targets.” That covers personal greatness, engaging others, and a focus on outcomes. Secondly: “Chris is sharp, hard working and ethical.” Those points all relate to personal greatness. All other things being equal, can you see why Terry is more likely to be promoted than Chris? As you think about how you want to be known, be sure to factor in all three elements of the leadership definition.

9 Take control of your career

Women often wait to be tapped on the shoulder for development and advancement opportunities. Managers often don’t think of us as ambitious and so we are disappointed when opportunities don’t come our way. To take control, have frequent and clear conversations with your manager, mentor and sponsor about your openness to new opportunities.

You don’t have to name a specific job – you can say, for example, “I’d like to contribute to the organization in a role managing managers,” or “In order to bring greater value to the organization, I’m interested in a project assignment in [another part of the business, or a different business unit or function – be specific!].” In other words, own your ambition. Consider choosing supportive work environments where you can create a career that soars, too: finding a supportive manager can make all the difference.

10 Never say “I’m busy”

If the hiring manager for your dream job walked by as you were bemoaning how busy you are, chances are they would think, “If she can’t handle the job she has, why would I give her the job she wants?” Instead, answer the question, “How are you?” by using the language of power to describe a project you’re progressing, an outcome that your team has exceeded, or your excitement about a strategic initiative you’re shepherding. Your career will be glad you did.

Will you reach your career goals if you activate these ten career accelerators? There is no guarantee. But based on my work with women from every continent at every level and from widely different industries, your chances of achieving your career goals are much greater.