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How Did She Get There?

How Did She Get There?

40 women reflected on what made them a great leader. Five themes emerged.

13 minute read

By Jane Sassienie, Global Director, BRIDGE Partnership
8th Mar 2024

A couple of years ago, I spoke with a large investment bank who were looking to transform their organisation’s culture: “They explained to me that “we need leaders who will collaborate, work out complex issues together, listen to each other and their people, show empathy, and be resilient.” They added that “we need leaders who can navigate the change and take people through it sensitively.” The Senior HR Director, a man, said “I mean, where do we find these people? Who leads like that?” I thought for a moment and responded with what was really a question: “Women?” This led to a tiny tumbleweed moment. First silence, then they all began to laugh and nod.”

“I was curious about how women have succeeded and I wanted to dig deeper.”

The lived reality of women and men at work is vastly different. These differences for women show up on a sliding scale, from seemingly insignificant things such as noticing the chilly temperature of an office (set to a male temperature norm), to being spoken over (when asked, 36% of women in senior leadership positions reported being interrupted more than others versus 15% of male senior leaders), to being prevented from rising up the ladder (women receive substantially lower ‘potential’ ratings despite receiving higher job performance ratings, and are subsequently promoted less and paid less).

And this gap is not getting smaller. Globally, women continue to take on 75% of the unpaid workload,  such as acting as the caregiver for children and elderly relatives. Despite being aware of this gap, organisations are barely any closer to closing it. The solutions so far have done very little – if anything at all – to shift the reality for women. Many of the initiatives that organisations have adopted over the years, such as assertiveness courses for women, have focused on fixing the women rather than the organisation, asking them to be more demanding, to lean in, to be more like men. 

In our work as leadership and organisational development consultants, we at BRIDGE, have time and time again seen solutions that focus on fixing women. In 2019, having been asked to create a leadership programme for women in a global bank, I realised that most of the literature on the subject was about how women fail. But I was curious about how women have succeeded and I wanted to dig deeper.

I thought for a moment and responded with what was really a question: “Women?” This led to a tiny tumbleweed moment. First silence, then they all began to laugh and nod.”

Instead of looking at how women fail, I decided to study how women succeed. I did this by interviewing 40 women in senior leadership roles, from CEOs to elected representatives to human rights lawyers, who have succeeded and continue to succeed in traditional patriarchal organisations. I chose women that I believe represent an exception – succeeding without changing themselves to fit the prevailing paradigm. These women aren’t thriving by becoming ‘honorary men,’ rather, they’ve done it on their own terms

Our intention was to gain an understanding of their common experiences, to surface patterns that emerge from their stories, and to glean how women can reach the top whilst remaining themselves. From our conversations, I identified five key patterns that these women had in common, and from these patterns I was inspired to put forward suggestions and ideas that I hope will act as a starting point for organisations to spark real change, not just for women but for everyone in an organisation.

1. Parental Power

What is the power of being told “you can do it” as a young girl? When asking the women who are now thriving in their senior roles whether anything in their childhood had helped with their success later in organisational life, they had lots to thank for their upbringing.

Vasiliki Petrou, Group CEO at Unilever Prestige, recalls her father giving her a book on positive thinking called ‘You Can’ – it discussed confidence, taking risks, trying things and not worrying about failure. What her father said to her stuck with her: “you can take risks and I’m behind you, there is always the safety blanket, which is the house, the family.”

Beyond self-belief, many of the women interviewed forged values in their childhood such as kindness, hard work and humility. Some were inspired by seeing their parents as equals and no division of responsibilities.

“Childhood was the most instrumental in who I am and what I do,” says Cathy Gilman, CEO at Starlight Children’s Foundation, a charity that exists to champion the importance of play for seriously ill children. “My parent’s love and acceptance gave me a sense of innate security, which I know not everyone gets. Their only expectation of me was that I be as good to people and the planet as possible, which I carry with me to this day.”

“Childhood was the most instrumental in who I am and what I do.”

Cathy Gilman

Of course, not all women interviewed had role models in their childhood. There was a subset of women whose call to leadership came at an early age as a result of challenging and sometimes traumatic experiences. For them, leadership was born out of crisis. What sprung from these experiences, however, was a strong self-belief in themselves – in their own agency, capability and leadership.

While we can’t go back in time and change our past, there is the possibility for us to re-parent ourselves as individuals, to explore and overcome the things that may be holding us back and to put in place the support we need – whether through coaching, mentoring or therapy, as well as opportunities for organisations to pick up where family, education or society may have failed.

2. A Different Path Up The Mountain

You might expect that these women had meticulously planned and executed goals, where they knew exactly what they wanted from an early age, were not afraid to ask for it, and ambitiously climbed the ladder – the type of assertive ‘Lean In’ approach. This was, in fact, not at all what was discovered.

Many of these women didn’t have a master plan or a clear direction from the get-go. “I never had an exact path in mind, but I was always very open to see the opportunity and dive into it,” says Petrou.  

That’s not to say they drifted in the wind, aimlessly meandering through their careers. Rather, and it was one of the most frequently used words during our conversations: these women remained ‘‘open” – open to new opportunities, possibilities, failures. 

“I always come back to the question – what is the purpose?”

Tanisha Carino

For example, when faced with a large-scale decision at work, Tanisha Carino, Partner at global critical issues firm Brunswick Group, would ask herself: “I always come back to the question – what is the purpose?” While these women might not be certain on where their path would lead, they weren’t afraid to take risks and go against the grain – whether that’s stepping up, moving on, staying put or turning something down – in order to follow what mattered to them most. Other principles include going the extra mile (to overcome being judged more harshly and under different standards to men), and harnessing their natural resilience when a crisis emerges.

The open path isn’t necessarily better than the assertive and fixed ‘Lean In’ approach. Rather, we’ve found that there is more than one path up the mountain and almost all the women we spoke to followed the receptive and flexible path. For organisations to enable more women to thrive, it is essential that they provide an environment which supports more than one path.

of the 128 women surveyed online said they had no expectations at all for their success and are quite amazed at how far they have come.
felt that connecting to one’s purpose and passions and being led by it was most true for them, as opposed to having a clear vision of where they were going.

3. If You’re a Unicorn, Don’t Try to be a Horse

“Some women, in my experience, have had to shape and mould their behaviour to fit in,” says Elaine Lorimer, Chief Executive at Revenue Scotland, a non-ministerial department of the Scottish Government. “I haven’t done that. I’ve always tried to be true to myself. But what that means is that being truly authentic and being yourself, you don’t necessarily fit in with the conventional way of thinking.”

Being truly authentic and being yourself means you don’t necessarily fit in with the conventional way of thinking.”

Elaine Lorimer

Reclaiming oneself and recognising, accepting and embracing one’s differences and strengths is a recurring theme in our conversations. Several of the women interviewed learnt to lead more authentically and to let go of their attempts to fit into the prevailing paradigm. This often began with a moment (or moments) of self-awareness, whether prompted by a mentor, manager or a development programme, or from looking within, as is the case for Tracey Clements, now SVP (CEO) of Mobility and Convenience Europe at BP.

“The more senior the leader was, the more likely she was to say that authenticity was the key to her success.”

At the time, she was the only woman at her level. But instead of letting her qualities shine through, she had been displaying qualities that she felt the business valued i.e. being assertive and decisive, dominating the conversation – typical of an alpha-male culture, or being “blokey”.  After a while, hiding herself away had become utterly exhausting and untenable; she can pinpoint the exact moment when, overnight, she reclaimed herself.

Interestingly, during our interviews, I observed that the more senior the leader was, the more likely she was to say that authenticity was the key to her success. On the flipside, doing the opposite – trying to fit the ideal worker, potentially alpha male, stereotype – was found by consulting firm Bain to be the number one factor that negatively affects employee engagement. While this is how several of the women began their careers, over time, they learnt to embrace their differences and reclaim themselves.

4. Lead Like These Women

Men and women continue to attribute traditionally masculine traits like assertiveness and dominance to leadership. But what if these are not at all the attributes that we need in order to solve the disruptive challenges we are facing today? 

One of the strongest themes that emerged from our conversations was the participants’ ability to walk in other people’s shoes and have empathy for others. For example, Georgia Gould attributes her winning the role of Leader of Camden Council to “sitting in living rooms and talking to people”. This is despite listening deeply and empathy often being seen as weaker traits not conducive to leadership. 

52% of the women we spoke to said their function as a leader is to empower and enable others to be their best. Mary Ann Sieghart, author of The Authority Gap, describes women’s innate ability to “mentor and empower employees, encourage them to develop their full potential, engage their trust, and allow them to contribute their views.” The women we spoke to were able to facilitate their teams effectively and this was, in part, due to their lack of ego – they didn’t need to be the star of the show. 

Finally, several women described using their intuition when they made decisions. For example, when Chief Executive at Camden Council Jenny Rowlands is in a meeting, she makes a point of “saying what’s going on in the room and trusting my feelings”. Of course, intuition isn’t just a “female thing, but a human thing”, says Mary Portas in her book Work Like A Woman – but is a quality worth nurturing for women at work.

Listening deeply, empathising and collaborating have historically not been considered leadership strengths at all by organisations; rather, women have been encouraged to move away from these capabilities. The irony is that time and time again, the successful women we interviewed leaned on these qualities in order to thrive. 

of the responses from the online survey highlighted the importance of empathy.
of the responses said qualities such as enabling others, collaborating and connecting with others made them stand out as a leader.

5. Partnership Not Dominance

Those who have less in the world recognise that they will get nowhere without alliances. That’s what acclaimed business leader Margaret Heffernan says to explain why women, who have historically had less capital and institutional power, are so skilled at building alliances and collaborating. She adds that as the world now moves from a competitive mindset to a collaborative mindset, these skills women have developed are now, in fact, a huge professional advantage. 

“When I reflect back on the things that have helped me and the journey as a woman I think the relationships were key.”

We saw this in the women we interviewed; one of the most inspiring patterns we observed was the long-lasting partnerships these women forged, partnerships that were instrumental to their growth and success. These women create a culture of mutuality rarely seen in organisations that are used to promoting individuality. Moreover, the fact that they had risen together didn’t detract from their sense of personal achievement. They saw their collaboration as a strength. 

“When I reflect back on the things that have helped me and the journey as a woman I think the relationships were key,” says one participant. Critically, “I always got on well with men but with women, there was a sisterhood.”

“I’ve always worked really hard for good people who gave me the opportunity to succeed. It’s also extremely important to offer it too if you’re able to do so.”

Tracey Woodward

In addition to partnerships, many participants highlighted the importance of mentorship during their journey – both from men and women. These women were not afraid to ask for and to accept help along the way: “I’ve always worked really hard for good people who gave me the opportunity to succeed,” says Tracey Woodward, Co-creator of selfcare and wellbeing brand Kalmar. “It’s also extremely important to offer it too if you’re able to do so” – here we see the ‘pay it forward’ culture of mutuality.

The women we spoke to showed tremendous gratitude for those who supported them on their journey. They acknowledged the coaches, and role models who enabled them to rise. They were not afraid to ask for help and to learn from others. They forged partnerships that lasted a lifetime. And they paid it forward by mentoring the next generation of leaders.

The overarching message and the intention of the work from 40 interviews with female leaders was clear: stop trying to fix the women, fix the organisation. Organisations can learn so much from the women who are thriving. The women shared qualities that are considered to be ‘skills of the future’ and which make them ideally placed to solve complex and disruptive challenges faced by organisations. 

I hope this acts as a call to arms for organisations to treat the challenges that women are facing at work as an urgent business-critical risk. To ensure that their workforce is diverse and able to freely thrive is not a benevolent act, rather it is an act of organisational survival. When there is a true commitment to bringing about real and systemic change, incredible things happen. And it isn’t just women who reap the benefits; everyone does. I am profoundly grateful to the women who participated in the research – in demonstrating solutions for organisations, and proving in their own right that they can be successful, without sacrificing their womanhood.

The ‘How Did She Get There?’ study was led by Jane Sassienie at BRIDGE. Read the full report here.