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How Women Can Get To The Top – Advice From High Performing Female Leaders

Women make up a majority of the U.S. population, earn almost 60% of undergraduate degrees, 60% of all master’s degrees and yet they lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions. To boost the number of women in leadership positions faster we’ve gathered the key advice from Fortune’s most powerful women and other female leaders.

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” – Madeleine K. Albright, former Secretary of State

The truth is that everybody needs advice, support and guidance to reach the top – even the most famous male business leaders in the world. For example Steve Jobs mentored Mark Zuckerberg through the earliest days of Facebook, Bill Gates considers famed investor Warren Buffett, the “Oracle of Omaha,” to be his mentor, while Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says his old boss at hedge fund D.E. Shaw was his huge inspiration.

We’ve compiled the most valuable, actionable advice from accomplished female leaders that will help you as an aspiring leader achieve success in your professional and personal life. At the end of this list you will find out what the most powerful women have in common.


MARY BARRA (Fortune’s MPW)
Chairman and CEO, General Motors

Key advice: When you feel that discomfort because of the new assignment you should take it because that is so critical for advancement.

Take those assignments that cause you to step a little outside of your comfort zone!


BETH E. MOONEY (Fortune’s MPW)
Chairman and CEO of KeyCorp

Key advice:Aspire, dream big and never say “No” to a challenge! Have enough confidence in your own ability, and your ability to work hard and make good decisions, and go into the unknown.

We all make mistakes and what you do after a mistake is critical determinant in a career. Don’t get knocked down, bounce back!”


Chairman, President, and CEO, Lockheed Martin

Key advice: Have a passion for work and a sense of responsibility.

“Get out of your comfort zone, take the risk, take on new responsibilities, and you will find that you are capable to take more. Work hard, stay determined and you can do anything that you put your mind to.”


COO, Facebook

Key advice: Help build resilience in the world.

“When disappointments strike, know that deep inside you, YOU have the ability to get through anything.”


LYNN GOOD (Fortune’s MPW)
Chairman, President, and CEO, Duke Energy

Key advice:Just keep going!”

Demonstrate that you have confidence, demonstrate that you’re going to work hard, put the resources to resolve the issue and improve. Perseverance and optimism are important qualities for a leader to demonstrate in order to keep people encouraged during a crisis.

The qualities of exceptional leader are: Courage, Humility, Authenticity, the ability to dig deeply when you are in a tough situation, and the ability to be a Good Listener.

“Stay focused! Celebrate the good things and don’t be too down about the bad things. The ability to stay focused no matter what’s going on is important in order to instill confidence in the team around you.”


President, CVS/pharmacy, EVP, CVS Health, CVS Health

Key advice:It’s OK to fail!”

When you become comfortable with failure, you will take bigger risks, do better things, get up quicker.


President, Personal Investing, Fidelity Investments

Key advice: “Just go for it. Too often, women have a confidence gap that makes them pause and slow down while men dive in and learn as they go. Just go for it!”


CEO, Deloitte

Key advice:Raise your hand, take risks, and don’t fear failure—it’s one of the biggest impediments to success.”


CEO, YouTube, Google/Alphabet

Key advice:Speak up. Don’t be afraid to say what’s on your mind or ask for what you want.”


President and Editor-in-chief, Huffington Post

Key advice: “Don’t be afraid to fail!”

Don’t just go out there and climb the ladder of success. Instead, “redefine success” because the world desperately needs it.

Finally, remember that while there will be plenty of signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, there will be almost no signposts reminding you to “stay connected to the essence of who you are”, to take care of yourself along the way, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible.


VP of Global Marketing Solutions, Facebook

Key advice: Surround yourself with people you can count on, while simultaneously being someone that others can rely on.

“Know your purpose in life and business, and remember to always be yourself.”


So what do the women on the 2017 Fortune list of Most Powerful Women have in common?

Of those MPWs who responded to Fortune‘s query, 65% played sports competitively in either high school or college; sometimes both. The correlation between leadership and sports is quite remarkable. According to a survey conducted by Ernst & Young among 821 high-level executives surveyed a whopping 90% of women sampled played sports. Among women currently holding a C-suite position, this proportion rose to 96%.

Very interesting to note is that many of the world’s powerful women played sports when they were younger.

Did You Know?

  • Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was the captain of the swim team and also played varsity lacrosse, tennis and basketball. At Princeton University she played NCAA squash and lacrosse.
  • The first female head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, was a member of the French national synchronized swimming team.
  • Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played several sports, including basketball, soccer and softball.
  • Former US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a competitive figure skater and tennis player.
  • PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi played cricket in India and later baseball in the US.
  • DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman played college basketball at Tufts University.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff played volleyball.

The impact playing sports has on one’s leadership skills is quite evident. Taking an athletic mindset combined with the advice given by those that have “been there done that” will help you successfully move up the corporate ladder, or find the position where you can have the greatest impact.

Having more women in corporate leadership roles has been shown to improve performance.

As reported in Business Insider, the study on gender diversity performed by Marcus Noland, Tyler Moran, and Barbara Kotschwar for the Peterson Institute for International Economics showed that female leadership has a positive impact on a firm’s results:

Analysis of a global survey of 21,980 firms from 91 countries suggests that the presence of women in corporate leadership positions may improve firm performance. This correlation could reflect either the payoff to nondiscrimination or the fact that women increase a firm’s skill diversity.

The key takeaway here is that one token female leader is not enough.  Diversity needs to be throughout leadership and the organization to drive results.


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