To read the introduction to our 'How Did She Get There?' study, please click here.
“It was about deciding what you want out of life, and the sense of doing what matters to you. Being awesome at what you do matters more than doing something with status.” - Interviewee
One of the most surprising findings in our conversations with women, all in senior positions within organisations, was the path they took to reach their position. One might expect that their path was planned and meticulously executed, where they knew exactly what they wanted from an early age, were not afraid to ask for it, and ambitiously climbed the ladder – the type of assertive ‘Lean In’ approach. This was, in fact, not at all what we discovered.
Many of these women didn’t have a master plan or a clear direction from the get-go. “I never had an exact path in mind, but I was always very open to see the opportunity and dive into it.” (Vasiliki Petrou). “Despite having held leadership postings in government, non-profit and for-profit companies, there are many days where I don’t even know how I got here.” (Tanisha Carino) They are surprised when they see younger women taking a more ‘Lean In’ approach – “when I hear people say I want to be a Director by 40 it is a different approach than how I looked at success.” (Pamela Klyn)
We conducted a survey alongside our interviews. 128 women participated in our survey. The questions in the survey were designed to test several hunches and patterns we’d noticed from the interviews, to see if similar patterns emerged from a broader group of women. Women self-selected for the survey – they were asked to complete it if they felt they had been successful without compromising who they were or without trying to be more like the men around them.
To the women who felt they had succeeded beyond their expectations in their careers, we asked the open text question “What makes you say this?”:
Interestingly 50% of the responses followed the theme of having no expectations at all and are quite amazed at how far they have come. Here are some extracts from the participants:
- “I never expected to get to the executive team, I thought others were better than me. I think I have under-recognised my talents and achievements.”
- “I never thought I would have this amazing life, job, career or live in this amazing space… I pinch myself sometimes...”
- “I am at a place today that I never imagined I would reach: aligning my passion with my profession.”
- “Perhaps I didn’t have a clear picture of what I would do or where I would get despite my work ethic and ambition, I have always simply wanted to work hard, to grow and learn and be considered valuable. I am proud of the professional I have become and I am not done yet.”
- “I didn’t start out as a career-driven, goal oriented person; but went on to become purpose-driven and personal growth-centric.”
- “I guess I hadn't seen myself in the role of Board Director. This wasn't an aspiration, I just enjoyed the work and worked hard.”
- “I don’t think I held any expectation about what my career would be… ”
The paths of these women were rarely a straight line. So what patterns did we discover? If they didn’t have a master plan, what guided them? Many of the women we interviewed followed a few key principles.
One of the most frequently used words during our conversations was the word ‘open’ e.g. “I was always very open to new opportunities.” These women remained open, but this doesn’t mean they drifted in the wind. They didn’t aimlessly meander through their careers. They were guided by a few key principles. They remained open to opportunities, provided these opportunities connected deeply to their purpose and values, and enabled them to quench their curiosity and desire to learn. Their purpose, values and curiosity were their anchors and their roles were, in many ways, a product of these anchors. This meant that the roles they took were often diverse and led them down surprising routes.
If we call the ‘Lean In’ approach an assertive and fixed approach i.e. having a very clear and defined vision of what you want and going after it (such as, for example, becoming a VP of a creative agency), then the path many of the women we spoke to took was a flexible, receptive and open one. They did not have a clear path (in fact their path was often winding) but they knew what they were passionate about and what mattered to them. They followed a set of principles and were happy to see where it took them. We are not proposing that this path is any better than the assertive and fixed approach. Rather, we are highlighting the fact that there is more than one path up the mountain and almost all the women we spoke to followed the receptive and flexible path. For organisations to enable more women to thrive, it is essential that they provide an environment where more than one path is supported.
As mentioned, these women remained open, but this doesn’t mean they drifted in the wind. They didn’t aimlessly meander through their careers. They were guided by a few key principles:
Georgia Gould became the youngest ever UK Council Leader when she was elected leader of Camden Council. One could easily assume this was by design, but “I never have an idea of ‘this is what I’m going to do’,” she tells us emphatically. She had never “designed her moves or her career.” Instead, from an early age, Georgia understood what she was passionate about.
In her own words, Georgia Gould was “an overly empathic child. I was a vegetarian at the age of 9. I always loved community building. During the Kosovan refugee crisis, I wrote a proposal about how I should and could give up my bedroom for a refugee… When I am happy, I’m working with a group of people, on a purpose, really hearing people… I don’t need ego boosts, I organise behind the scenes… my big goal is to suppress ego and stay in touch with purpose, and community building. I’m a messenger and I’m serving.”
Georgia’s words reveal that she has a strong sense of purpose. What do we mean by ‘purpose’? A personal purpose is the unique contribution we make with our life. Essentially it is our why, why we exist on this planet and what we want to contribute to it. It’s a combination of our passions, our strengths/talents, and what we care about in the world. Some people develop a sense of purpose from an early age, and for others, it takes longer to discover. In Georgia’s case, she understood what she wanted to change in the world, in her formative years.
The concept of having a purpose isn’t new. It has been around for millennia. But more recently, organisations have begun to understand the impact a more deeply meaningful purpose can have. A purpose is powerful – through its depths of meaning it acts as a guiding star. It provides us with much-needed meaning and clarity. Several women mentioned they use purpose to make decisions, enabling them to navigate complex challenges. Tanisha Carino, who is a Partner at Brunswick Group, a global critical issues firm, and who has held a wide variety of senior roles including Visiting Fellow to the White House, recalls the time when the company she was working for had to make a tough decision. She comments “I kept coming back to the question – what’s the mission? The mission is to help as many people as we can as fast as possible… whether it’s small things or big things, I always come back to the question – what is the purpose?” Tanisha’s response chimes with Georgia’s words about suppressing ego i.e. it is not about her, it is about the purpose at hand.
Not all the women we spoke to had a purpose as defined as Georgia’s, but what they did have was an understanding of what mattered to them and what they were passionate about. They made decisions – such as which projects they wanted to take on, or which company culture they wanted to be surrounded by – based on these values.
We wanted to see how many women identified with the ‘Lean In’ approach. When participants were asked to choose which of the following two options is most true for them, here was their response:
Over 80% of participants felt that connecting to one’s purpose and passions and being led by it was most true for them, as opposed to having a clear vision of where they were going.
Furthermore, we shared the following statement with participants “I have focused on areas that interest me and that I love, always open to related opportunities.” We asked participants to tell us whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement:
Respondents overwhelmingly related to this statement, with 62% strongly agreeing that the statement reflected their approach.
*128 women participated in our survey. The questions in the survey were designed to test several hunches and patterns we’d noticed from the interviews, to see if similar patterns emerged from a broader group of women. Women self-selected for the survey – they were asked to complete it if they felt they had been successful without compromising who they were or without trying to be more like the men around them.
Thea Roberts, an Executive Coach who has had a long career in retail and FMCG working for brands such as Marks and Spencer and Mars, lit up when she discussed her thirst for learning and her constant curiosity. “What I know now is that I like to be competent. People perceive this as competitiveness but I see it as wanting to have a go and do it well. It’s less about winning. Now I can see that I love to learn and try new things. I learned to ski at 46, for example. I feel the fear and do it anyway. I’ve always wanted to stretch myself further and see where my limits lie.”
This burning desire to get under the hood, to join the dots, was a strong pattern that emerged from the conversations we had with women. The word ‘curiosity’ frequently appeared. These women were hungry to get below the surface and explore new terrain: “I’m curious-natured and interested in not just what happened but why.” (Janine Osborn) “I like figuring things out, I’m comfortable with the unknown.” (Karina Wilsher) “I did not seek promotion. It was always about what am I going to learn here. How will I grow?” (Pamela Klyn)
These women took on a new role or new project based on their curiosity. Tracy Garrad, CEO at AXA Health, explained how she “moved around and broadened my skills. My husband says it’s nosiness but it’s my curiosity and I want to know how things work. I wanted to do the General Manager role as I liked the idea of joining the dots.”
At other times, a fear of boredom led them to change direction, “I was propelled by not wanting to be bored. I was and am curious. I’m interested. I like doing things, I like completing things. So if I was bored then I would ask for something else because I’d just be getting restless.” (Gail Rebuck) “I’ve moved jobs a lot. That’s because once I fix a problem, sort of my work there is done… and I don’t like being bored.” (Sophie Neary)
These women were open to new possibilities provided these possibilities enabled them to grow. Curiosity was a key consideration in their decision-making.
Make no mistake about it, it takes courage to remain open and flexible and to go where your purpose and passion take you. For the women who followed this route, it meant they sometimes took risks and made unexpected decisions that other people simply couldn’t understand. Taking a risk doesn’t just mean stepping up. It can also mean moving on, staying put or turning something down. Here are a few examples of the risks and choices these women took in order to follow their passion, values and curiosity:
Staying put when the work feels meaningful
Elaine Lorimer decided to go against the advice of her peers: “I've never been somebody who has been interested in getting to the top… Instead, what I have been interested in has been doing work that I find intellectually stimulating and working in an environment where I feel I am adding value.” After spending nearly six years in the same organisation, people told her to move. “I’m thinking well if I'm enjoying doing what I'm doing, and I can really see it making a difference, why do I need to move on?” She took a risk by going against the grain and staying where she felt she was making a difference.
Moving on or making a career change when the context no longer matches your values or passion
Cathy Gilman was successfully transforming a retail business. Despite this success, she felt the organisation had deviated from its initial purpose. At the same time, her cousin was struggling with leukaemia. In this moment, something crystallised for her. She decided she wanted to help leukaemia patients. She became a corporate fundraiser and took a huge salary drop but she was exactly where she wanted to be. Fast forward a few years and she became CEO of the charity, raising huge funds and making a difference. Sometimes taking that leap of faith is what is needed in order to follow your passion.
Stepping away from an opportunity also takes conviction. Perhaps the opportunity doesn’t match your values/passion or maybe you don’t feel you’re going to be able to contribute. Pamela Klyn surprised her leadership when she turned down a prestigious role: “I was very aware of what I was good or not good at. I turned down a VP role because I was not ready. People were shocked that I would turn it down. I was more focused on whether I could add value in that role. It was always about my value add and growth.”
There was a chapter in Keshini Jayawardena’s life where she decided to reprioritise: “So this decision to put my kids first, guided the next chapter… Being a CEO would not have made a positive difference to my life so I turned it down several times and I do not regret this.”
Sometimes the risk involves grabbing an opportunity when you see it no matter how daunting it looks. Many of these women were talent spotted. When they were offered something that matched their passion, they embraced it with both hands. “He wanted to nurture me so he gave me an opportunity, but I was catapulted into a leadership role where I was the only woman in the room… It was really tough. I had to build my credibility with people who were entirely different.” (Elaine Lorimer)
All of the above examples involved women taking a risk, a leap of faith, at times going against the grain, in order to follow what mattered to them most. And they willingly did so, without regret.
Putting in the hard work in order to excel was a recurring theme. As a result, these women achieved amazing things. Several women said they never actively applied for roles. Instead, the opportunities happened organically by being talent spotted as a result of their stellar performance: “I never applied for a job. They have always come from relationships and opportunities.” (Claire Camara) “I never had an idea of ‘this is what I’m going to do’.” Others have always asked me… I was always invited or put forward.” (Georgia Gould)
Some learnt this value of hard work from an early age. Claire Camara, Global Chief People Officer at EssenceMediacom, comments that “at about 14, I started a Saturday job. I decided I would get a series of different Saturday jobs in different retail outlets.” She learnt that “if you work really hard, you will get on. Regardless of who you were and where you were. I saw that in my mum.” Sophie Neary, Group Director UK&I at Meta, recalls her father revealing some hard truths to her as a child “it’s harder for girls. They need to be better than boys to be viewed as the same. You have to work twice as hard to be viewed as doing the same amount of work.”
Outstanding work also provided a certain licence to freedom. “In a sense, my delivery in business results was always important. People may say that she is different but she delivers. I would always gain my independence and my freedom because my results were always there even if people could not put me in a box.” (Vasiliki Petrou)
Going the extra mile is a reality for many women. Mary Ann Sieghart comments that “a superb record may indeed function as a buffer for gender bias when making promotional decisions. That explains why outstanding women sometimes do manage to make it to the top in real life albeit in smaller proportions than men do.”25 She goes on to share how Mike Rann, former Premier of South Australia says, “women read their briefs, they don’t just read the summary of their Cabinet papers, they’ve actually done the homework, often much more diligently.” He explains that this is partly because they are judged more harshly, under different standards to men. Rann adds, “I think men have a lot to learn from women and I don’t understand why they’re so scared.”26
It’s worth noting that the level of commitment and care that women gave, meant they delivered outstanding results. As Rann points out, “women often outperform men. For instance, houses listed by female estate agents sell for higher prices, female lawyers are less likely to behave unethically, and patients treated by female doctors are less likely to die or be readmitted to hospital.”27 Perhaps the learning here is that men need to step up and work just as hard as these women.
We are not proposing that women should accept the status quo and have to work twice as hard as men at any given time. Later in this chapter, and in subsequent chapters, we explore the cultural changes that organisations can implement in order to shift the reality for women.
There was also a strong sense of pragmatism and resilience in the women we spoke to. Time and time again when these women were faced with a challenge, rather than complain, they found practical solutions to get the job done. “I made it work, I recruited a team.” (Kari Daniels) “I start from the position that you can resolve anything if you put skin into it and really care.” (Jenny Rowlands). “There is always a way of getting something done.” (Janine Osborn). “My manager told me there is never a problem I can’t find my way out of.” (Lorna Davis) “I have this ability to create calm amongst the chaos… and to be able to find the signal in all the noise… to apply common sense.” (Sophie Neary)
They demonstrated a natural resilience when a crisis emerged: “I think women are a little bit more prepared to just deal with it when it lands, and when it shows itself. They are a little bit more courageous; they’ll own their mistakes, and they’ll step up and speak out if necessary.” (Tracey Woodward) “The universe never brings to you anything that you cannot tackle.” (Vasiliki Petrou)
To conclude, taking a ‘Lean In’ approach is not the only way up the mountain. There are other routes. As these women have shown, it is entirely possible to rise through a more flexible, open and adaptive pathway, guided by a sense of purpose, a curiosity to learn, a willingness to take risks and a commitment to putting in the time and the energy.
How can organisations learn from these insights and enable more women to thrive? Download the paper to explore several powerful and actionable recommendations that we put forward.
25 The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021, P25
26 The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021, P78
27 The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, Mary Ann Sieghart, 2021, P78, from “Are Women Held to Higher Standards? Evidence from Peer Review”, Erin Hengel