Reaching The C-Suite Requires A Duo Of Essential Skill Sets

Women face seemingly countless biases in the workplace that keep them from advancing to the top. Research indicates women are considered too old, too young, too ambitious, too self-effacing. In terms of pay equity, a long-held perception that women do not negotiate better salaries turns out to be false. New research indicates women do ask but are more frequently turned down.

One Chicago organization aims to break the bias by helping women advance to the highest levels of leadership.

“Women need a larger aperture of opportunity,” said Maria Doughty, CEO of The Chicago Network, an invitation-only organization of the top women executives in the greater Chicago area. The purpose of this 30-year-old organization is to advocate for gender equality for women of all colors and at all levels.

Doughty, who built a successful career in the insurance industry before moving to the CEO role at The Chicago Network, says that women need to focus on developing skill sets and experience around two key areas to advance to the CEO role: running a P&L and managing crises to maximize their big-picture career opportunities.

The idea of opportunity hits Doughty in her heart. “I’m the daughter of Italian immigrants who didn’t speak much English until I started kindergarten,” she says. “I’m convinced that my mother, given the opportunity, could be running IBM. Hearing my parents talk about opportunity built my resilience, my adaptability and my absolute determination to work as hard as I could.”

Doughty specifies two areas as essential experiences for women to rise: P&L ownership and crisis management. The reason women in particular need to seek out these experiences pertains to another institutional bias. In Susan Colantuono’s seminal TEDx Talk “the career advice you probably didn’t get” spotlights the differences in how men and women are groomed for leadership. Women are mentored on skills like executive presence whereas men are mentored in the fundamentals of the business. Sally mentions one male business leader who was mentoring a man and a woman, who indicated he needed to rethink how he guided his mentees.

If the experience gap includes P&L expertise and crisis management, it’s worth looking at why they are important.

Run a P&L

Simply put, a profit and loss statement totals a business’s revenue and subtracts the expenses. For a CEO, this expertise is essential. People are subject matter experts or lead a shared service division, as exceptional as they may be, rarely make it to the top. Top leaders need to demonstrate the financial acumen to run a business, even if it’s a not-for-profit or other type of organization.

“I believe so fervently how important it is to own a P&L,” said Doughty. “This might mean taking a lateral position, or even a lower one. It can only increase the opportunities you have in your career.”

Get Experience with Managing a Crisis

As a longtime C-suite advisor on issues management and crisis communications, I know that the best crisis is one you never have. I can also say that a crisis is bound to happen, even with the best planning and solid stewardship. Being able to navigate a crisis requires a balance of many skills, from solid decision making, stakeholder engagement, problem solving, conflict resolution and a host of others, all under pressure. Demonstrating these skills in the face of constant scrutiny can help people demonstrate leadership in a distinct way.

Communicate Your Value

I’ll add a third item, which is communicating your value, surprisingly tricky for women who are expected to communicate like a boss without being bossy. Too many women mistakenly believe that if they keep their heads down and do good work, it will be recognized and rewarded. This of course is not the case. But navigating the balance beam of celebrating wins without being considered self-promotional is a skill that will help any woman reach the C-suite. That’s a topic for a future post.

Launchpad Leadership Summit on September 20

An extension of The Chicago Network’s Women at the Forefront Luncheon is the Launchpad Leadership Summit, a half-day workshop on September 20 to help women VPs and directors chart their path to the C-suite. Initially open only to women sponsored by Chicago Network members, the event is open to the public. The event includes interactive sessions and speakers featuring executives from Deloitte, Fannie Mae, Sterling Bay and others. Sessions include financial acumen and crisis management, of course, and also networking and other leadership topics. Register here.

Doughty zeroes in on the true spirit of the program: “Launchpad shows all these women that they have the ability to lift others up. Because there’s always going to be somebody that you can lift up.”

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