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How Women Can Get Ahead: Advice From Female CEOs
5/18/2012

Source: The Wall Street Journal

By JOHN BUSSEY

Our recent recounting of how Jack Welch clashed with a group of female executives over how best to advance to the top of corporate America touched a raw nerve in the business world.

Readers fired off a barrage of comments. "He's right," one wrote about the former CEO of General Electric GE +0.74% . "RESULTS—that's all that counts, period."

Not so, wrote another: "Mr. Welch's notion that his career, or anyone's, is a result of a single androgynous metric—'performance'—is false." The workplace is still an "old boys' network."

So I went to the 18 women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—a record number but still just 3.6% of the total—and asked their opinion. What factors, personal or in the workplace, fueled their careers and what myths about the advancement of women did they encounter along the way? Eleven gave their thoughts.

Alan Murray talks with Jack and Suzy Welch at the Women in the Economy conference about what steps need to be taken to eliminate the cultural biases against women advancing in business.

Their advice is practical. And notably, it echoes much—but not all—of what Mr. Welch had to say, albeit with a bit more nuance and finesse.

A recap: Mr. Welch was speaking at The Wall Street Journal's Women in the Economy conference and said that, to get ahead, focus laserlike on performance. Mentoring programs, he said, are a bad idea; everyone on staff should be your mentor. Support groups, such as women's employee groups, can be likened to "victims' units," which the best women tend to avoid. And there is no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices that have consequences you need to accept. To get ahead, he said, raise your hand for line jobs and tough, risky assignments. And take advantage of rigorous performance reviews, which are the best time to get coaching and address concerns about bias.

"The most important factor in determining whether you will succeed isn't your gender, it's you," argues Angela Braly, CEO of WellPoint WLP +2.29% . "Be open to opportunity and take risks. In fact, take the worst, the messiest, the most challenging assignment you can find, and then take control."

"I have stepped up to many 'ugly' assignments that others didn't want," says KeyCorp's KEY +0.40% CEO, Beth Mooney.

Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox, XRX +1.12% says it's wise for aspiring leaders to cultivate risk-taking. "There were lots of reasons for Xerox not to acquire Affiliated Computer Services," she says, by way of example. But the company took the gamble. "In the two years after we purchased ACS, we are transforming our company—more than half of our revenue comes from our services business and we continue to maintain a leadership position in the technology that made Xerox great."

Along the career path, the CEOs say, pursue new skills relentlessly. Change jobs after you've mastered the current one. Be willing to tack sideways on the career track, or even backward, to pick up key expertise or command a business unit.

"I knew from an early age that I wanted to lead a company," says Denise Morrison of Campbell Soup CPB -4.25% . "I developed a strategic process for my career plan that set the final destination, developed the career track, identified skills to build, took line positions to gain experience, and sought leadership and management training on the job, through special assignments, coaching and networking. For example, as VP of Marketing for Nestlé, NESN.VX -0.28% I actually worked in a manufacturing plant which gave me a deep appreciation for how the supply chain works."

"In order to lead an organization, you have to be incredibly comfortable in your own skin," says Gracia Martore of Gannett, GCI -0.12% "and the only way to do that is to be confident in who you are."

Look for opportunities to stand out from the crowd and ask for what you want, the CEOs advise. And when you hit a goal, speak up and toot your horn. Don't wait to get noticed. "For a lot of women, they think the myth is true, that if they just do a good job and work hard, they'll get recognized. That's not the case," says Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications, FTR +2.92% and the sister of Ms. Morrison.
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Mentors were key in the careers of several of the CEOs. They endorse the idea of mentorship. Ms. Wilderotter says she regularly picked the brains of a range of senior execs. "I had many mentors, and they didn't know it."

As for the sanctity of performance, Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont, DD +1.17% says it drove her career: "Accountability, performance and external benchmarking."

"I had a very strong work ethic," adds Heather Bresch, CEO of Mylan, MYL +0.33% "and was willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. There is simply no substitute for hard work when it comes to achieving success."

"I don't disagree with Jack Welch that performance is the ticket to the dance," says Frontier's Ms. Wilderotter. "Unless you're delivering value, there is no right to move forward. I do disagree that all is fair in the workplace."

"Men selectively listen," Ms. Wilderotter says. She recalls making points in boardrooms, then watching the group take note of a male later saying the same thing. "When that happened, I'd stop the conversation and say, 'Do you realize I said that 10 minutes ago?' Women have to take responsibility for the dynamic around them; you can't just say 'Woe is me.' "

"My experiences with gender bias are probably the norm," says Ms. Bresch of Mylan. "What I found was that expectations of women were simply lower, and this resulted in being overlooked for certain opportunities. Now as a leader, I strive to create an environment different than the one I faced, an environment where good ideas can come from anyone—young, old, men, women, assistant, executive—and opportunities are open to everyone."

"The biggest myth that I'd like to set to rest is that women can't have a family and a successful career," says Ilene Gordon, CEO of Corn Products CPO +0.58% . "The skills that make a good business leader—organization, drive, trust, delegation and compassion—also go a long way to balance the responsibilities of work and family life."

"The myth," adds Ms. Braly, "is that women and their families don't have to make trade-offs to have an 'extreme career'; they absolutely do. How you prioritize your life and career is your choice. Once you make a decision, stick to it; don't always second-guess yourself."

The myth, continues Deanna Mulligan, CEO of Guardian Life Insurance, is "that you can have a 'balanced' life at all times."

That said, Ms. Wilderotter of Frontier believes women are better at multitasking than men. "We do it naturally. I see it in our organization. Men seem to be more asynchronous"—a tech term that means, among other things, starting a new operation only after finishing the last one.

That asynchronous linear drive, if true, can be good for meeting a specific objective. But it may not leave much room for nuance that might shape that objective—or win over an audience.

Which, perhaps, brings us back to Jack Welch.

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