Recently, a group of women reacted unfavorably to some words of career wisdom delivered by former GE Master and Commander Jack Welch. Welch had told women at the The Wall Street Journal's Women in the Economy conference that they should "over deliver," that "performance is it," and that while diversity and mentorship programs are all well and good, they're not how women get ahead. (He also likened women's employee groups to "victim's units.") Not terribly surprisingly, he was criticized for failing to acknowledge an overall gender bias with regard to women in the workplace. At that time, we asked rhetorically, "How about supporting women's careers by getting women who've been there to deliver the career advice for women?" (Also around that time, we reacted unfavorably to some other career advice for women written in The Wall Street Journal.)
Now we have some answers. The Journal's John Bussey turned to the 18 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to ask them what they thought about the personal and workplace factors that have fueled their careers, and the "myths about the advancement of women" they've encountered in their time on the job. Bussy points out that those 18 female CEOs, a record number, comprise just 3.6% of total of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. So, what did they say?
WellPoint CEO Angela Braly told Bussy, "The most important factor in determining whether you will succeed isn't your gender, it's you. Be open to opportunity and take risks. In fact, take the worst, the messiest, the most challenging assignment you can find, and then take control." Braly and another CEO, KeyCorp's Beth Mooney, support the somewhat controversial tip put forth in the other Journal piece, "Nine Rules Women Must Follow to Get Ahead," that women should "Do work no one else wants to do." Mooney told Bussy, "I have stepped up to many 'ugly' assignments that others didn't want." (This advice is only problematic, in my opinion, if it exclusively applies to women.)
Xerox CEO Ursula Burns said that leaders should take risks. Others advised women to always pursue new skills, to know when to leave a job, to be willing to "tack sideways" or backward on a career track for the right reasons, and to be strategic. Also, be confident and "incredibly comfortable in your own skin," said Gannett's Gracia Martore, "and the only way to do that is to be confident in who you are." Stand out from the crowd, ask for what you want,and don't wait to get noticed. Also, don't be afraid to brag about yourself: "For a lot of women, they think the myth is true, that if they just do a good job and work hard, they'll get recognized. That's not the case," says Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications. While a lot of that advice really plays for either gender, maybe that's the point—good career advice should apply to either gender.
Despite Welch's comments on mentorship programs, the female CEOs said mentors had been pretty important to their careers, whether those mentorships were formalized or not. And, oh yeah, work hard, don't complain, and, by the way, all is not fair in the workplace:
"My experiences with gender bias are probably the norm," says Ms. Bresch of Mylan. "What I found was that expectations of women were simply lower, and this resulted in being overlooked for certain opportunities. Now as a leader, I strive to create an environment different than the one I faced, an environment where good ideas can come from anyone—young, old, men, women, assistant, executive—and opportunities are open to everyone."
Another strike against Welch had been his comment back in 2009 that "there's no such thing as work-life balance," and that women who take time off for families might have "a nice life" but weren't likely to reach the top. In an apparent rebuttal to that, Corn Products CEO Ilene Gordan argued that it is possible to have a family and a successful career, and, in fact, doing one may actually serve the other: "The skills that make a good business leader—organization, drive, trust, delegation and compassion—also go a long way to balance the responsibilities of work and family life."
Isn't it nice to hear it from a woman?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.