How Women Can Take the Wheel and Set Their GPS Coordinates for The Top

"When Women Get Stuck, Corporate America Gets Stuck." This was the title of a recent Sheryl Sandberg op-ed on the state of female representation in the upper echelon of US companies, and I could not agree more. Following a study conducted by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co entitled "Women in the Workplace 2015", the commentary was flush with statistics on the "ambition gap" between men and women. After reading it. I began to wonder if the inverse of Sheryl's statement holds true. That is, if corporate America gets stuck, are women necessarily stuck as well? I would argue, no.

Women who aspire to hold leadership positions can exercise far greater control over career outcomes than they realize. While companies still have a long way to go in fostering diversity at the highest levels of management, the reality is there is never enough time in a boss' day to make you his/her highest priority. That task will always be left to you.

My professional journey to the CEO's office, while specific to the world of banking, has armed me with insights that are applicable to all women aspiring to positions of leadership and authority.

Have Passion for Your Industry.
Leaders need to have a heartfelt enthusiasm about their profession and its place in society. This energy will fuel your desire to gain as much insight and experience in the industry as possible, positioning you as driven and forward-looking, both key qualities in a leader. Banking has always been my passion. Pillars of their communities, banks help local economies to grow and residents to thrive. Locate a similar drive inside of yourself and let it propel you forwards.

There Are "Must Have" Job Positions.
Women often gravitate to (or are steered towards) staff roles such as Human Resources, Legal and Marketing. While these are important roles that require strong interpersonal and diplomatic skills, they often don't provide the relevant job experience required to be CEO. Entering the C-Suite requires a deep understanding of concepts like profit dynamics and shareholder value. Therefore, "must have" jobs should expose you to critical aspects of a business such as finance, operations, managing P&L statements and interfacing directly with clients. I left a comfortable product management position to run a national consumer lending business, where I gained firsthand experience managing large teams of people, executing business plans and delivering financial results. Implied in this approach is the willingness to try new things within an organization, make lateral moves and sacrifice a potential short-term promotion for the bigger prize later on!

Demonstrate The Ability To Lead.
The C-Suite demands exceptional leadership skills. Ask yourself, do you:

• Have a strong vision for the company?
• Surround yourself with proven, highly effective people?
• Foster a culture of collaboration and communication?
• Show a willingness to make tough decisions?
• Lead by example, operating with the highest level of integrity and honesty?

While not a guarantor of success, those who can answer yes to these five questions will find themselves among the most eligible of applicants for a C-Suite opening.

Seek Industry Exposure.
Garnering the respect and attention of your industry peers will enhance your stature inside and outside your own organization. Securing speaking engagements, publishing articles and joining trade organizations will not only earn you recognition outside of your organization's immediate sphere of influence, it will also help hone your public speaking skills, a prerequisite for any effective CEO.

Don't Try To Be "Male Like". Be Yourself.
In my early years in banking, I witnessed some very unproductive behavior. I saw women adopt more stereotypical male-like behaviors to help increase their chances of getting promoted. The resulting over-compensation resulted in more aggressive demeanors, unprofessional outmaneuvering of peers and even sacrificing their silk scarves for bow ties! It rang hollow, looked forced and failed to work. The diversity of talented women from different backgrounds ensures there is no one, single approach to achieve success in often male-dominant workplaces. However, I think one universal piece of advice is to be yourself. Women need to celebrate being women and value all they bring to the table. Be smart. Be accountable. Be approachable. Be You!

Manage Up - Ask.
So much of the exposure and success I had prior to becoming a bank CEO came as a result of terrific mentors. Building and sustaining a strong rapport with executive management is a critical part of advancement. This is called managing up: communicating your career aspirations to decision makers and garnering their support for rewarding job opportunities. Women often feel uncomfortable doing this as they fear it comes across as pushy and an overstepping of bounds. Many societal factors have contributed to this over time, but women everywhere need to embrace this notion of managing up. Some of my most successful employees were those who showed me they had the tenacity and leadership skills to ask for help and then delivered!

Now here is where I remind you of some simple truths: The road to the top is not easy, success does not come overnight and it takes active engagement and planning by Y-O-U! There are many career opportunities for young women just waiting to be seized, but it requires an active, not passive, approach.

In analyzing the findings generated by the LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co conducted study, the Wall Street Journal's Nikki Waller and Joann Lublin observe that there is a "message for corporations: There's a lot of work to do, and it starts at the top". This is 100% correct, and I hope that future installments of this study will document positive change. But until that day, women should remain just as focused as ever on taking control of their professional futures.