5 things successful professional women have in common that might surprise you


High-achieving, professional women come from different cultures, educational backgrounds and environments – but they have a few interesting character traits in common.

After many years working in business education, I have been fortunate to work with a wide variety of successful women from all over the world – be they students, academics or our corporate partners – and have often been struck by the similarities between them. Regardless of whether they are professors from China, entrepreneurs from Ghana or CEOs from the USA, these are some of the things I have observed that they have in common.

1. Successful women get up early

Investment expert and lecturer at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) Dean Hand says getting up at 4am helps her to “get a few things done” before the day begins. It’s not only about being organised, but also about being prepared for the day in a calm and present way.

Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela gets up at 3am every day to pray and meditate.

Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela

“I check my emails, go through a few newspapers, work on reports and try to go for a walk before getting dressed,” she says, saying she sleeps only about six hours every night.

Similarly, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, arrives at work at 7am every day after having dropped off her children at school. This means getting up at about 5am every morning. With an early start to her day she is able to do more and leave work at a regular time to be home in time for dinner.

In fact, the list of successful early risers is long and illustrious as motivational speaker Robin Sharma highlights in his influential new book The 5am Club. He describes the practice of early rising as your victory hour which will be a quick “win” to make sure the rest of your day is as productive as possible.

2. Successful women love their work

For many high-achievers, work is not just a job but a calling that provides meaning, structure and an opportunity to effect change.

Former JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King, also a former Businesswoman of the Year, in one interview said, “I love my job. In the last 20 years I can count five days where I didn’t enjoy it.”

Another example is Farhana Parker, Cape Town social entrepreneur and Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum, who is so passionate about social entrepreneurship that it is almost a vocation. She is a trained social worker and founder of The Social Makeover, a programme that empowers underprivileged girls to find employment and uplift their lives.

Parker, a Bertha Scholar at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, was recently named one of the winners of the #InspiringFiftySA competition, which recognises female achievement in the field of science, technology, engineering and maths.

3. Successful women are often humble

Psychologists from Duke University say that humble people don’t see themselves as special, despite their achievements and as a result, have a more accurate view of who they are and what they can achieve. Humility is also linked to more positive psychological and interpersonal outcomes. It is vastly underrated as a leadership quality although studies show that humble leaders listen better, inspire co-workers more and can get teams to achieve goals more effectively.

Some of South Africa’s top businesswomen are known for their humility, a good example is Maria Ramos, former Absa, group executive.

Marias Ramos

“She has a practice of trying to be accessible to many people under her employ. She makes a concerted effort to make people feel valued, which was evidenced by the interaction with the tea lady, who was known by her first name. The time spent in the field and specifically with train drivers during her tenure at Transnet allowed for the understanding and appreciation of their work,” states MBA student Tamara Chetty in her MBA thesis on Ramos’s leadership style.

In the same way, prominent businesswoman Wendy Luhabe, may be one of the most powerful businesswomen in South Africa, but she is humble about her achievements.

“While it is wonderful to be recognised for what I have done, I don’t attach much value to this and I wouldn’t feel less accomplished or do less without it,” says Luhabe.

“I think the value in it is that it inspires others to achieve because they can see what is possible. For that I am grateful, because I want women to be inspired to make things happen for themselves.”

4. Successful women have strong values

Many successful female leaders are deeply religious or have a strict moral or ethical code that they live by and work according to. It provides a moral compass and directs their energies in a focused way. For example, Wendy Luhabe starts off each day at 4am with prayer.

“I am ready to face the world knowing that God has gone ahead of me, and I am equipped to command the day and glorify Him.”

Oprah Winfrey

But it does not have to be religion. Entertainment legend Oprah Winfrey does spiritual exercises in the morning in the form of motivational visualisations on cards, which she reads to help ground and centre her. “You must have a spiritual practice,” she told a Stanford audience in 2015.

“What is yours? Well, for some people it is going to church if that’s where they nurture themselves. I believe in creativity, artful expression, prayer, conscious kindness, empathy, consistent compassion, gratitude – all spiritual practices in the way of becoming more of who you are,” Winfrey said.

Put another way, being spiritually aware gives life meaning and purpose, helping you to achieve more.

5. Successful women have a good support structure

Studies show that family obligations is often the biggest reason why women don’t pursue a career more single-mindedly or rise to senior roles in business. It is perhaps no great surprise then that women who are successful in their professional lives, often credit the support of partners and family members.

Newton-King’s husband famously was a stay-at-home dad who looked after the children, cooking and home while she was able to drive innovation and transformation at the JSE.

Catherine Lesetedi-Letegele, the CEO of Botswana Life Insurance, said: “You need to create a support structure around yourself at home and at work to achieve what you want. For example, my husband supports me and is not worried or annoyed if I have to work until 11 at night to finish a project. You need a support structure so that if a child is sick it is not automatically you, the woman, who has to take time off to take the child to a clinic, as society dictates. If you can share that with your partner, you can progress in your career as well.”

Read: Basetsana Kumalo tells her truth

If you are reading this list and don’t see yourself sharing any or one of these five traits, don’t despair. It’s never too late to build good habits and learn more effective ways of operating and achieving what you want to.

Psychological expert and international author Robert Taibbi says it is all about recognising the patterns and finding ways to change them. Identifying the habit you want to build – like getting up early – is the first step.

Then, find a way to make it happen; go to bed earlier or set an alarm, for example. Building your best life is a process for each of us and it can be helpful to take a leaf out of the book of those who have walked the path before us.

• Kumeshnee West is the director of executive education at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

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