Stuck in the Middle?

How to get into the plum positions

By Dawn Klingensmith


In the three decades since women blazed trails into corporate America, the path has become increasingly easier.

There’s just one hitch: Far short of the executive suite, the trail peters out.

The expanse between middle management and the upper echelon marks “the next frontier” for women in business, says Deborah Merrill-Sands, dean of the Simmons School of Management.

A mere 1.2 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2004 were women, according to Catalyst, an organization that studies workplace gender issues.

And women made up just 16 percent of corporate officers.

Research disproves the oft-cited explanations that women abandon careers to raise kids and that they crave power less than men do, Merrill-Sands says.

Persisting gender biases are largely to blame for the dearth of female corporate officers, she says.

Simmons’ surveys of 1,000 professional and managerial women found that nearly half aspire to the highest leadership positions in their organizations.

If you’re striving too, take heart: Women’s prospects look promising.

“If we look back over the last 30 years, we’ve seen some significant advancements,” Merrill-Sands says.

She adds that the percentage of middle managers who are women has risen to 50 today from 4 in the 1970s.

“In the next 10 years or so, we’ll see a significant increase in the number of women in top leadership positions,” she predicts.

Unfortunately, there is no map to the top. Women who have already forged ahead can give pointers, but there’s no sure-fire plan for success.

However, according to those trailblazers, if your destination is the CEO suite, you definitely should do the following:

• Gain plenty of profit-and-loss experience.

Men still hold 90 percent of the P&L positions at the nation’s largest corporations, according to the National Association for Female Executives.

“Those are the jobs that provide essential bottom-line experience for boardroom and CEO slots,” says Betty Spence, the association’s president.

In fact, P&L experience is practically a prerequisite.

How do you snag these jobs? Ask for them.

Learn to negotiate.

Read “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide,” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.

According to the book, women negotiate very effectively on behalf of their companies, but not for themselves.

Their failure in this regard helps explain the persisting salary gap between men and women and also undermines their efforts to advance.

"A common mistake women make is not asking for the tools they need to be successful, like staff increases and other resources," says Victoria Medvec, executive director of the Center of Executive Women at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Women also mistakenly believe that raises and promotions come automatically on a silver platter to hard workers, Aigotti says.

You need to ask for what you want, and be specific, she advises.

“Capitalism is competitive. If you don’t ask, someone else will.”

Communicate your value to the organization.

“It’s important to talk abut your accomplishments and make sure key people in the right places are aware of them,” Merrill-Sands says.

Emphasize the connection between these accomplishments and your organization’s bottom line or goals and objectives.

For example, when Deloitte, a leading provider of audit, tax, consulting and financial-advisory services, asked Ellen Gabriel to lead a companywide initiative to retain and advance women, she worried that her work on the project would be undervalued, despite its apparent importance.

She put together an analysis showing that as a result of her efforts, the company was able to reduce attrition of women by a certain percentage, which annually saved millions of dollars, Merrill-Sands says.

Gabriel subsequently was elected to the company’s board of directors. (She died in 1999 of breast cancer, and the Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Professorship for Women and Leadership was established in honor of her achievements at the Simmons School of Management.)

Create a portfolio documenting your successes.

Warm-fuzzies, not just facts and figures, should have a place in your brag book.
“Include e-mails of congratulations from senior management and colleagues, articles you published, awards you won, and anything else that makes you proud,” says entrepreneur Alison Chung, a former law-firm chief information officer.

“On a bad day, when no one pats you on the back, you can look at it and smile and pat yourself on the back.”

Peruse the portfolio before annual performance evaluations to boost your confidence, adds Chung.

Find a mentor.

Ask whether or not your company takes part in a program that matches female employees with mentors, advises Lisa Tegtmeyer, director of operations at CDW Corp.

NAFE’s Spence says mentor-seekers should play the field.

“People I speak with say they have three times the amount of work they used to have,” she points out. “Everyone’s overloaded.”

Trying to initiate an ongoing, one-on-one relationship with a stressed superior might not be the best tactic.

Instead, select several “simultaneous” or “serial” mentors who can give you short-term assistance, Spence recommends.

tart by honestly evaluating your skill set to determine which areas need work.

Weak on making presentations? Look for an outstanding speaker who can give you some pointers.

Secure a sponsor.

Northwestern’s Medvec says corporate decision-makers unconsciously think “men” when they think “leaders.”

You’ll need a sponsor — a high-ranking, influential person within the organization — to advocate for your advancement.

Joining special task forces is one way to gain access to potential sponsors.

When leadership positions become available, a sponsor can put your name on the table and make a clear argument why you should be considered, Medvec says.

But, it’s your responsibility to provide your sponsor with convincing data.

Surround yourself with a great team.

“As soon as you’re in a position to hire people, it’s critical to take the time to find really good employees,” says Martha Dustin Boudos, chief financial officer of Morningstar Inc., a mutual fund and stock research company.

“Your success depends on it.”

Don’t hire too hastily.

“People get desperate when there’s a hole in their staff, and they tend to think that having someone is better than having no one,” she says. “Actually the opposite is true: It’s always better to have no one than the wrong person in a job.”

Once you’ve assembled a solid team, make sure its success reflects back on you.

Always give credit where credit is due, but, at some point, you have to associate your team’s work with your leadership.

The right wording can call attention to your contributions without claiming too much credit, Merrill-Sands says.

When reporting to supervisors or a board of directors, “Don’t say, ‘We’re very proud that we’ve accomplished X, Y and Z.’”

Instead, she advises, say, “I’m very proud that my team and I have accomplished these things.”

Find one or more external advisers.

“The higher you advance in your organization, the more you’ll find that the people around you have their own agendas,” warns Merrill-Sands.

You may need to look elsewhere for unbiased advice.

Merrill-Sands has a colleague who did research to find that CEOs who have one or more external advisers were more objective, made sounder decisions, developed a broader and deeper understanding of their industries and were, ultimately, more successful.

Serving on not-for-profit boards is one way to meet prospective advisers, Merrill-Sands says.

“And since you’ll be working side-by-side, you can develop a relationship with someone while getting a sense of her strengths and weaknesses.”

When I Grow Up…

You gave up that dream of becoming a fairy princess long ago. Ditto: the movie star.

So, now what do you do with the rest of your life?

Identifying your dream job is the first step toward achieving it, says Laurie Kahn, CEO and co-founder of All About Careers, a consulting and training firm for corporations and individuals.

“You have to think outside the box, do your homework, assess your skills and do the right networking,” she says.

Here are some pointers to help you find a career path:

Figure out what makes you happy. What do you do in your leisure time that you enjoy? Think about your hobbies or special talents, and then look for the business side to them.

Work your way up. Even if you can’t start your dream job right away, take jobs that will at least put you on the road toward it. For example, you may need to volunteer doing something similar in order to gain experience.

Prepare to make sacrifices. You may have to work at a reduced salary or be willing to relocate.

Take advantage of opportunities. For example, Kahn was working in sales and became very frustrated. Then, one day, her manager came in and fired almost everyone. That was her chance to devise her own position.