What's your Goal: Senior Executive, CEO, Board Member (or All of the Above)?

In the United States, women fill fewer than 17 percent of leadership positions and corporate board seats -- even though we represent about 50 percent of the workforce. So, is it possible for today's woman to break through these barriers?
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Much has been written -- by myself and others -- about the need for companies to add more women to their senior leadership teams and their corporate boards.

In the United States, women fill fewer than 17 percent of leadership positions and corporate board seats -- even though we represent about 50 percent of the workforce.

So, is it possible for today's woman to break through these barriers?

Yes -- but only if you have the right credentials, the right experience and the right understanding of what it takes to reach the highest rungs of corporate America.

magazine began its "Most Powerful Women" summit in 1998. At the time, there were two women CEOs among Fortune 500 companies: Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard Co.) and Meg Whitman (eBay Inc.). Less than 5 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies were filled by women.

This year's "Most Powerful Women" list included more than 20 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, led by IBM's Ginni Rometty, No. 1 of the entire list of Fortune 500 CEO's.

Today, more than 11 percent of Fortune 500 board seats are filled by women, up 1 percent from last year. The Thirty Percent Coalition -- a group I belong to -- advocate for 30 percent of board seats filled by women by 2015.

Progress is slow, but it's going on the right direction.

Do you see yourself on the next "Most Power Women" list?

If not, why not?

If so, how do you get there?

Barbara Allen is a former senior executive who has spent 18 years as a director on corporate boards. She and I have collaborated to develop a checklist of expertise, responsibilities and personal characteristics to help you get ahead, no matter what level you are in your organization or where you want to be in the future.

Here is our checklist:

Leadership Positions -- Core Requirements

The first step toward obtaining a leadership position is to move up the career ladder by working every day of every year developing the skills and capabilities for the position you want and to be ready for the unexpected -- positions you never even thought about.

Become recognized as an industry expert; a 'go-to' person in your organization who delivers value in everything you do. You need to be viewed as a team player with significant expertise and is known inside and outside of the company as a real leader.

Set a goal: Where do you want to be in three years? Your aspiration: A leadership position, which will ultimately lead to a senior leadership position or a corporate board position. This is an ongoing question, always updating where you want to be in three years, and figuring out how to "make it happen."

Senior Leadership - Core Requirements

To obtain a senior leadership position, you must be an expert, authority and leader in your industry and line of the business -- and you must have broad experience and understanding about the rest of your organization. Here are some core requirements for senior leadership:

Business Acumen -- which includes financial literacy: Are you able to 'walk the walk and talk the talk?' It is essential that you understand the business language and the financials of your company. Additionally, you must have experience solving problems using financial data: Profit and Loss statements, balance sheets, cash flow analysis, annual reports, etc. And, you must have experience being responsible for the financial outcomes of a division or other entity within your organization.

Experience/responsibility for a line of business (or more) as well as be seen as an industry expert. You should always seek to build your skills and capabilities to lead a larger part of a business. Along the way, you should deliver a bottom line contribution to the success of your company. Being responsible for developing strategy, meeting personnel requirements, mitigating risks and handling marketing among other areas will broaden your contribution to the success of your company.

Personal qualities. You are seen as a leader, a team player and a contributor to the success of your company. You lead with integrity and honesty; have good people development skills; are creative and a problem solver. You are future-focused. You know how and when to use your voice; but also when to be a good listener who is eager to learn. Lastly, you ask hard questions and if appropriate, challenge the status quo.

Corporate Board Seat - Core Requirements

Your industry, functional and technical skills, as well as your senior level experiences from your corporate responsibilities, will put you on the path to a board seat. Your role: To help a company operate and compete; to be successful without being in an operational position, only in an advisory role.

Mellody Hobson is chair of board of DreamWorks Animation SKG and also on the boards of Starbucks, Estée Lauder and Groupon. Recently, in an interview with Fortune, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg described her as a "valuable adviser, because she simplifies complex problems, always thinks long term and asks questions in an unthreatening way.

"If she were a boxer she would have a knockout punch that would make you feel like you got hit by a feather," Katzenberg told Fortune.

To achieve a position on a corporate board, you should have "board " training, mentors and sponsors. You should begin to build your resume during your senior executive roles (to capture the experiences you have had to demonstrate your credentials) and connect with people and organizations that will help you achieve your goal: To be on for-profit business advisory board, on a non-profit board and ultimately, on a corporate board.

Here are some are some core requirements that a search committee would likely consider for recruiting a corporate director:

Readiness, based on skills and experiences as a senior level leader in a comparable industry and organization; don't forget this includes business acumen and financial literacy;

Knowledge of corporate governance;

Understanding of what it means to be on a board and the role and liabilities of a being a director;

Understanding of how to be an effective board member.

Ernst & Young LLP recently published a report on diversity that shows that average board diversity is about 10 percent points higher in companies that have women in executive leadership and board roles.

The E&Y report mentions six most common qualifications cited by companies for women joining boards in 2012-2013:

1.Industry experience
2.Financial / accounting
3.Executive leadership
4.Experience serving on other public company boards
5.Operational leadership
6.Strategic planning.


Companies want people who bring fresh, new perspectives, and who also have deep-seeded corporate ideals, goals and missions.

It is up to you to develop your skills, experiences, brand and resume -- to fill the board seat!

In any position, organizations or working groups or corporate board, it's important that new members show up, stand up and speak up. Most importantly, new members must work to listen and learn first.

You can do anything you set your mind to do. Go for it and change the numbers.

Move the needle for yourself -- and for all women.

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