Developing Women Leaders: Five Factors That Matter

To thrive in the future, support women leaders.

By Lucy P. Marcus

There are five universal factors that, no matter where people are, where they are from or what sector they are in, make a real difference in encouraging young women to reach success.

Though they are prone to credit luck for their success, it is mostly hard work and perseverance that brings women to the top of their field, be they artists, scientists, entrepreneurs or academics. These are the women who never settle for the mediocre, are perpetually restless and striving, and who know that real success can only be found by crossing time zones, cultures and cruising through stop signs.

The most successful women in the world have grabbed every opportunity afforded to them and have created opportunities for themselves, harnessing their fears and doubts as rocket fuel instead of rocks in their pockets.

Factors that contribute to the development of the next generation of women leaders can be gleaned from their experiences.

Some of the characteristics of successful people, such as motivation, natural curiosity, courage, self-management, enjoying being stretched and rising to a challenge, personal will and fortitude, drive and flexibility may be innate, but there is no doubt these characteristics also need to be nurtured and encouraged.

Five factors stand out that help to support developing women leaders. Not particularly costly or demanding, they have proven to be very effective.

1. Basic Skills
There are certain basic skills everyone should be given access to, beyond the standard education. We need to ensure young women have access to building skills that help them move to success early in their careers. These include public speaking, writing, negotiation and effective networking. People might have natural skills in some of these areas; but if not, then seeking out courses and opportunities to practice these skills is worthwhile. Some employers will give women access to courses in these areas through career development opportunities, but that can often be in their mid-career. It actually has more value and impact if started earlier on. If these are not forthcoming from work, courses are worth seeking out independently.

2. International Exposure
Travel brings an invaluable exposure to other cultures and ways of thinking. It is essential for advancement in any profession, even those that seem local, cloistered or sheltered. This is particularly the case as the world becomes increasingly globally interdependent and actions that occur in a place that seems far away inevitably affect everyone, directly or indirectly. International experiences challenge thinking and certainty in a way that can be very healthy. The skills that come from living and working in unfamiliar settings are valuable in themselves, and so are the experiences that can be gleaned from seeing how other cultures deal with issues. It forces people to think outside the box and challenge them to find, and apply, solutions beyond their comfort zones.

3. Mentoring
Mentoring plays a big role in developing any career. It is important, though, to distinguish what kinds of efforts are most useful at different stages of career development. A person needs different types of mentoring at different points in their career, from the student years, to the first years out of school, to mid-career, to the most senior career positions.

Student Years
During student years, meeting, shadowing and personal exposure to senior figures in the field all help to inspire young women to aspire to something greater. It helps to be able to see what success looks like in any given field and to get a sense of accessibility. Seeing the fruits of hard work and hearing the stories of career paths – which are often anything but linear ones – can inspire young women. Access to as many people as possible, in as many fields as possible, helps to open up the vast horizons of opportunity that are available. It can spark the imagination of young people about where their paths can take them. University alumnae networks are useful – and alumnae returning to speak openly about their experiences can make a real difference by making success accessible.

First-Third Jobs
The early period in a person’s career is a time of exploration, of further learning and discovering career options, preferences and interests. During this period it is most useful to have exposure to a wide array of people in a chosen profession and perhaps to create a group of “go-to” people where a young woman can seek advice and ideas and begin to hone her ideas on her true career path. These mentors can be found many places – speakers who inspire, professionals who are admired, colleagues and managers who they know well. People are often receptive and flattered by emails – it never hurts to try.

It is helpful to have networks as a means of meeting people in their field and getting to know like-minded and like-skilled people. Equally important is having one or two people who know the individual well and can help to counsel her directly and specifically about options, choices and direction and concrete ways of achieving goals. This can be a vitally effective means of creating clear paths for career development.

Career Success
The years when women are at the top of their careers are a time of consolidation, solidification and fulfillment. It is a time when women can stretch themselves or get greater depth in areas of interest – for example, directorships in the business field or senior policy making or influencing positions in politics. Mentoring one another via peer relationships and networks can be very effective and satisfying. Having a close group of trusted friends and peers who are frank, generous and root for each other’s success can help make goals that seem to appear much more achievable.

4. Role Models
Role models are an extraordinarily fruitful way to inspire women to aspire to great things. Role models can be found close to home or in the people around them, as well as in those at a distance – seen only through the news even in faraway places.

There are two kinds of role models: first, those who help us to think about the kind of people we want to be through examples of kindness, fortitude, courage, bravery, integrity and other admirable characteristics, both in their everyday lives and the way they conduct themselves in the workplace. Second, there are those who help us to aspire to roles that perhaps we’ve not thought of before or encountered personally, particularly for young women – heads of state, heads of multinational corporations, leaders in political, cultural or social movements. In particular seeing women succeeding in an ever-widening array of roles inspires young women to broaden their expectations of their own possibilities.

5. Starting Early We need to start early to make sure girls know they are capable of reaching great heights. It starts in the youngest years of their schooling with words of encouragement and aspiration. Equally important is ensuring that boys and young men absorb these messages both openly and through example. Even the most closed societies and cultures have the ability to make shifts over the generations, if we begin to change the mindsets of girls and boys alike.

Creating an environment where women can succeed is vital. Public policy that encourages women to be successful, workplaces that reward for encouraging and advancing women, and education systems that educate women to the highest standards are just some of the things needed to help create an environment in which women are prepared and encouraged to rise to leadership.

Never settling, always being driven and always seeking new experiences – these are the hallmarks of the most senior women, and indeed the most senior men, in the world. We must all play a part in helping them succeed, as our countries, economies and futures depend on their success.

Note: This article is drawn in part from the keynote address "Inspiring Younger Women to take Leadership Roles" Lucy gave at the 2010 Global Women’s Leadership Conference in Seoul, Korea. It has appeared on the Marcus Ventures website and Huffington Post.

About Lucy P. Marcus 

The founder and CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, Lucy P. Marcus currently serves as the non-executive chair of the Mobius Life Sciences Fund and as a non-executive director and chair of the board audit committee of BioCity Nottingham. She is a fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and a member of the board of IE Business School. She is a prolific writer on global economic trends and best practices for corporate governance, venture capital, entrepreneurship, biotech, cleantech and women in business, and regularly speaks on these topics to diverse audiences around the globe.

Follow Lucy P. Marcus on Twitter: @lucymarcus

Talkback Readers: In honor of International Women’s Day, what ideas can you give to help support women leaders? Share on Talkback!

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