Top tips for women in the workplace

Despite the plethora of literature on gender equity issues and the range of women’s development programmes, women still ask: “Why is it so difficult to break through the glass ceiling?”

The tips that follow come from my experience in executive roles across different industries, the insights gained from coaching women in senior management and executive roles, and the results of a research study I conducted in a South African bank.

1. Understanding the competencies required of the job at the next level

Many women continue to believe that delivering good results at their current job level will eventually be noticed and earn them a promotion.

But the initial strengths that led to promotions early in their careers can later become “fatal flaws” when women continue to repeat the same formula, and fail to realise that success at the next level up is not more of what they are currently doing but adding qualitatively different competencies and skills.

Yet, with only a loose understanding of how operating at a strategic level as an executive differs from what they are currently doing, there is little chance of building a coherent strategy for developing the additional skills and competencies required for the next level of work.

Tip 1: Get a copy of the role description and key performance indicators of the job you aspire to, so you can start to assess what is really required to succeed and what your gaps might be.

2. Bridging the gaps

Successful executives put in place some key practices to enhance their skills in areas where they have gaps or staff their teams with people with appropriate skills who can compensate.

For example, to deliver solutions that will move the dial for the company, one needs to be informed of best practice, be able to identify developing trends and be fully in touch with how customers, staff and other key stakeholders’ expectations are being met.

Tip 2: Ask yourself: “How good is my environmental scanning? What feedback loops have I created? Is best practice part of my ongoing plan?”

3. Insufficient long-term career planning and risk propensity

It is all too easy to get caught up in dozens of emails, 10 meetings and five crises a day, and arrive at the end of the year exhausted but with nothing of great significance to show for all the effort.

Many successful executives set clear career goals for each career cycle of three to five years and even write their CV that way – the first page usually contains a set of key achievements.

These executives also show a higher risk propensity and will take a job that is somewhat outside their normal area of expertise because it represents an opportunity to gain experience in a new area. Even when such moves prove less than successful, men seem better able than women to capitalise on the learning experience and avoid immobilising self-doubt, accepting the lack of success as a short-term situation.

Tip 3: Identify which key achievements you hope to complete in the next career cycle and create or find the time, mental space and resources to ensure you achieve them.

4. Breadth vs depth of skills

Almost all managers display a significant depth of experience that has supported their career success thus far.

However, many women spend considerably more time in staff or specialist roles rather than in line roles, while the managers who later make successful executives had made more frequent career shifts and, as a result, were more knowledgeable about different functions and divisions. They were thus better able to provide integrated solutions born out of a wider perspective of the organisation.

Tip 4: Take every opportunity to build your business acumen and demonstrate your ability to generate solutions across the business value chain, and not just within your discipline.

5. Mentors, coaches and development plans

Many women report that they do not have mentors or coaches and that developmental plans are not regularly discussed with them by their managers. While this reflects poorly on their managers who are not actively developing them, it reflects equally poorly on the women themselves who have not taken proactive steps to address this shortcoming.

The majority of successful executives report having had a strong mentor and/or coach at critical points of their careers, and also mentioned having taken proactive steps at the early stages of their careers in approaching someone in a senior position and asking to be mentored.

Tip 5: Stop waiting for someone to assign you a mentor or coach. Go out and find one – just be realistic as to the availability of senior people with busy calendars.

6. Networking and relationship management

Many successful executives display a characteristic pattern of networking that differs from that of other groups. Successful executives use networking to establish contacts who can provide them with information, influence, introductions, invitations, access and power, which can really help leverage the solutions they can develop.

Women tend to see networking as they would personal friendships – something that requires a level of emotional commitment usually reserved for only a handful of close relatives and friends. While women typically reported having a network of 30 to 50 people at that level, the successful executives reported networks of in excess of 200 people.

Tip 6: Rethink your networking strategies. The first step is to realise what you have of value to offer (refer to those key achievements), then work out what other people have of value to offer and accept that networking is like an exchange of commodities.

7. Self-esteem and personal branding

Many male executives have an instinctive grasp of personal branding and have used this to their advantage, compared with the relative modesty that characterises women who often fail to take credit for their successes or do not market and brand themselves well. Women often fail to project an image of self-confidence or, at times, overcompensate, coming across as aggressive.

Tip 7: Personal branding is a skill that can be learnt and effectively applied.

Women may lack certain key competencies required for executive functioning, which were not adequately covered in past developmental programmes, appraisal processes or job exposure. But this is not irremediable – as has clearly been shown. Organisations in turn need to address the cultural and organisational climate issues that create unnatural barriers to the progression of women. They can also provide the training and development opportunities, and the access to mentors and coaches that would ensure that more women are enabled to reach the top layers of the organisation.

. Boninelli is an independent human resources (HR) strategist, and was executive vice-president people and organisation development at AngloGold Ashanti. She will be speaking on The Future Value of HR this month in Johannesburg, hosted by Business Results Group and the Gordon Institute of Business Science. For more information, visit

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