Growing the Ranks of Women Execs: Three Tips for Becoming a Female CEO

I'm heartened to see female CEOs in all sorts of organizations -- political, business and not-for-profit -- but women still represent a tiny minority of CEOs worldwide. Just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 5.3 percent of Fortune 1000 positions are held by women. Those numbers have to change. I say that not simply because women deserve more representation in business, but because companies need to reflect the make-up of their consumer base, and because women execs are good for business. In fact, a recent Credit Suisse study found that companies with women in senior management performed better financially than those without high-ranking females.

I'm a member of that small minority of high-ranking female executives. I've been CEO of four large companies over the last decade -- all in technology and finance, fields that many consider to be male-dominated industries. In part, I attribute my success to the fact that I had great opportunities and great champions along the way, but I also worked to develop skills that I saw were necessary for a seat in the corner office. In recognition of National Business Women's Week and National Women's Small Business Month I want to share some of the knowledge I gained along the way, in hopes that it will help those women who aspire to be CEOs or high-level executives.

  • Manage a sales force at least once in your career. One of my first significant leadership roles was as a sales manager. Sales is truly where the rubber meets the road, and performance is assessed more purely and cleanly than in any other management role. In sales, you quickly learn if you have what it takes -- or not. You hit your quota or you don't. As a sales leader you're doubly accountable for those measures because you're responsible for ensuring your entire sales force meets their goals as well. In short order, you must learn to hire the right people and help them develop their skills, to set goals and to appraise people correctly. If you don't develop those talents you won't succeed. Bonus: Sales skills never become outmoded; what I learned 30 years ago as a sales manager is still useful to me today.
  • Learn your way around a balance sheet and a computer. Women often rise through the ranks from the "softer" side of business: HR, marketing, operations and the like. But if you want to get to the top you must learn to read a Profit and Loss statement. Similarly, embrace technology. Learn to use a spreadsheet, create a PowerPoint presentation, run a WebEx, etc. These practices may not come naturally to you, but they're essential in business today. In fact, a recent Robert Half study found that 52 percent of the current FTSE 100 (a share index of 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange) chief executives have an accountancy or financial management background.
  • Build your network. Finding a champion higher up in the organization can make a big difference in your professional progress. Most of my career, I had male champions. One in particular got me ready for my role as CEO, teaching me the difference between being an operating executive and a strategic business leader. But champions are important in other ways too. So many business decisions are based on how well-known and well-regarded you are within your industry. Consider board appointments, for example. In my experience many new board members are not recommended by recruiting firms, but rather by other board members. With women comprising only 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats in 2013, there's a very significant likelihood that a board referral will come from a man.

I strongly believe that women should champion women too, and in the past few years, I've discovered the many facets of those relationships. I started a group of female executives called the "Wadobe Group." The name is based on our motto: Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are. We meet several times a year and talk about business challenges and issues, but we also share personal stories and have become great friends. Early on in my career, my primary focus was work and family, and I focused less on female friends. I didn't learn the power, value and importance of networking and being friends with other women earlier. Don't let those opportunities pass you by.

Despite the low number of female CEOs, awareness of the need for more female executives worldwide is growing; a recent study by accountants Grant Thornton found that close to one in two executives would like to see quotas for the numbers of women on the boards of large listed companies. I'm hopeful that those measures, the power of women helping women, and a greater understanding of the benefits of having female executives will create opportunities, like those that I have had, for more women to become CEOs.