When it comes to gender equality, women have come a long way. But with the exception of elementary school where girls are the undisputed rulers, we have yet to grasp any real balance of power.
The numbers from Corporate Canada aren’t inspiring, but I’ll share them anyway. In 2011, more than one-third of MBA graduates in Canada were women, as was 47.3 per cent of the Canadian workforce. But strength in numbers along the bottom doesn’t equate to proportionate gains at the top: only 5.2 per cent of the country’s CEOs are female. What’s more, some research suggests that a company’s stock drops after the announcement of a female CEO, but not after the appointment of a male CEO.
In the midst of all this doom and gloom, what is an ambitious woman CEO-in-the-making to do?
1. Do get experience in operations
If you want the top job, you need to have experience being in charge of your own Profit & Loss statement (P&L). Operations are where the rubber hits the road for any organization — it’s where the vision and strategic goals are brought to fruition through inspired work plans and solid execution. It’s no wonder then, that the people who are most often promoted to the top job come from an operational background.
How do you get into operations? By seeking out opportunities where your butt is literally on the line to produce a clearly defined result. Is there a project or initiative with a defined budget and clear expectations that you can “own”? Can you create such an initiative? The key is that there must be clear, tangible measurables that you take personal responsibility for ensuring. If your butt isn’t on the line for something tangible, it’s not really operational experience, and it’s not going to set you up for the top job.
2. Don’t get pigeon-holed in marketing, human resources or other support functions
While it isn’t impossible for marketing and HR people to take the top job, it’s rare. And unfortunately for us ladies, we tend to gravitate to roles in these fields. Are human resources and marketing important functions within an organization? Absolutely. However, they do not translate directly to tangible, butt-on-theline results… which is one of the reasons why these functions tend to not flow directly to the CEO position.
The reason that HR and marketing don’t necessarily equate to direct, tangible results is that they are often a three-step, versus two-step process. Here’s a two-step process: I found a way to (1) cut costs in my department, so (2) I made us money. Three-step process: I (1)found a way to increase employee engagement, which (2) enhanced employee motivation, which (3) made us money. The difference between the two-step and three-step argument is usually the CEO track.
If you are currently working in marketing, HR, or another support function within your company and you DO aspire to one day be CEO, begin looking for opportunities to plump out your CV with operational experience. Or, look to Tip #3.
3. Do get sales or business development experience
After operations, sales and business development functions are the next most common pool for future CEOs. Again, with sales and business development, there is a direct and tangible result to the company: you either landed the client and closed the sale, or you didn’t.
4. Get a sponsor
Mentors are great, but sponsors are critical for emerging women leaders. Sponsors are senior people — think your boss’s boss — who sit at the decisionmaking table and will ensure your name is up for discussion when it comes to promotion. How do you get sponsors? By practicing Tip #5.
5. Network up
Women tend to be great at networking with peers and helping up and comers. When it comes to developing relationships with more senior people? Not so much. Make a consistent habit of introducing yourself to senior people, and volunteering for opportunities that allow you to showcase your skills to heavy hitters.
Bottom line: taking the top job isn’t just about leaning in, it’s about stretching out — being accountable for financial results, becoming queens of big thinking, mastering great execution, and expanding our networks far beyond where they currently are. If you aspire to have the CEO position, I wish you the best of luck, sister. We need you.