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5 Tips for Climbing to the Top of Your Company

Betty Spence

President, National Association for Female Executives

During my two decades of advocating for women’s success, top executives have shared their success strategies with me. The keyword is strategy, and it’s essential to remember that success doesn’t happen magically or overnight. Instead, focus on these five tips for achieving your goals.

1. Perform 

Always deliver more and do so on time or ahead of schedule. Impress people over and over, and build a track record. Remember that consistent superb performance builds your credibility. Rebecca McDonald, CEO at Laurus Energy, told me a decade ago, “Talent notwithstanding and education notwithstanding, it’s performance on a day-in, day-out basis that gets respect.”

2. Land “line” jobs 

To get to the top, you need profit-and-loss (P&L) experience at jobs generating revenue. Line jobs include sales, operations, manufacturing, consulting and mergers & acquisitions. (Most women work in staff jobs supporting the line positions, like corporate affairs, human resources, finance, legal, strategic planning and R&D.) At the S&P 500, women hold less than 20 percent of these line positions. To land one of these jobs, ask your boss for the one you want. When I asked Karen Licitra, Company Group Chair at Johnson & Johnson, why she took a P&L position, she said, “You get to decide what products the company makes or services it sells.  You can directly help people.”

3. Network strategically

Success partially depends on the people you know who can connect you and feed you information. Join company networks to meet people at all levels, and join industry groups and nonprofit boards to broaden your contacts. Don’t hesitate to leverage your network by doing favors for others and asking for favors in return. “The more you deal in competitive businesses, the more important it is to know people who can tell you about the external environment,” said Maureen Kempston Darkes, retired group president of  General Motors for Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

4. Secure sponsors

No one succeeds without them. While mentors also matter, it is sponsors who create opportunities for you, recommend you and champion you.  You must win sponsorship by performing well and earning enough trust that a sponsor will put personal credibility on the line for you. Caroline Feeney, President of Prudential Advisors, said, “Sponsors don’t always identify themselves, but when they believe in your abilities and speak on your behalf, their words can make all the difference in accelerating your career.”

5. Step up first, master later

Many women may wait until mastering 80 percent of a job’s qualifications before raising their hands for it, whereas men reach for the job when they’ve got 20 percent. Step up even if you don’t know how to do it and figure it out as you go. Grab a challenging new project or rescue one that’s failing. Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld offered this metaphor: “You can’t steal second base with your foot planted firmly on first. Taking on risky jobs — sometimes the ones nobody else wants — helps you stand out from the crowd.”

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