Mary Barra of GM, Ginni Rometty of IBM and Ursula Burns of Xerox are innovative women leaders who all managed to successfully navigate their careers into the elusive corporate CEO job, as only a measly 5.2% of women have done. Others, such as Marissa Meyer, former CEO of Yahoo! and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, were recruited into the C-suite from a different company altogether. Remember that they, like all of us, were middle managers at some point, yet they moved up and up, unlike most women who get stuck in mid-level roles.
Middle management is tough for everyone. It’s where the work gets done, while the top rungs give the orders to do it. Though it defines a large swath of the talent pool, middle managers tend to have the least amount of resources, authority and influence, and yet most of the tactical responsibility. As Benham Tabrizi of Stanford University wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Over the past 20 years, no group has endured greater pain and humiliation within organizations than mid-level managers (MLMs — managers from two levels below the CEO down to the line managers)….(Yet) Aside from the role of the senior executives, the most important determinant of success was the role of MLMs.”
Women in middle management have it worse than men because they are more invisible and presumed to have less authority and influence and are therefore less likely to be offered career-advancing assignments and opportunities. Women in middle management have to be more creative, more resilient, more persistent and find more “work arounds” to reach leadership roles than men do. In short, women have to be innovators – and this can be a gift.
If we deconstruct the paths, achievements, choices, speeches and interviews of Barra, Rometty and Burns, and other women who climbed the proverbial corporate (or non-profit, or government) ladder to executive management, we notice they used strategies and tactics that demonstrate the five skills Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregerson labeled “The Innovator’s DNA” in their book of the same name: observe, question, network, associate and experiment. This is especially useful today, because the 21st century workplace rewards creativity and innovative solutions – what many job postings and leaders call “the entrepreneurial mindset.”
Though each woman’s paths and circumstances are unique, including yours, each of these high-achieving women paved their own way, letting go of how one “should” address workplace and business challenges or advance to senior roles. They found creative solutions, built strategic relationships and opportunities, and leveraged them, all while following their own compass. That’s why looking at your challenges and career decisions – large and small – through the prism of “The Innovator’s DNA” is a potential game-changer, especially for women.
Maria Blasé, President of Fluid Management, Materials Handling and Power Tools at Ingersoll Rand, in a male-dominated industry, stated it well when I interviewed her: “It doesn’t have to look a certain way…If you can give yourself that break, you are much more likely to be able to maneuver whatever is going on in your professional life as well as your personal life.” The former head of the National Science Foundation, Dr. Rita Colwell put it another way: “The important thing is to stay the course and find a way over, under, or around the impediment.”
What drives you? Is it creating a particular outcome – such as curing breast cancer – or becoming an SVP or CEO, or a partner at your firm? What’s your five-year goal? Where do you want to be in 15 years? Which of your jobs were the most fulfilling? Do you find greater enjoyment in your “side hustle” or volunteer work? Why? What’s your personal and professional mission statement today (it will evolve)?
It’s also important to observe other aspects of yourself, including: your self-talk, self-care, self-confidence, habits, self-image, how you spend time, communication and presentation skills, and measurable results you’ve generated.
Observe Your Role Models
Deconstruct the bios and profiles of the women who are where you want to be, even charting the jobs they had, for how long and what came next. What “assignments” did they have? What did they achieve for the business? Did they develop or launch a new product, or resolve a crisis? Did they relocate or hold a newly-created position? Serve on a high-profile committee? What was their first VP-level job? What did they study and where?
We’re looking for “career-making assignments,” choices and achievements, the ones “that help demonstrate to senior executives that (the person) has the necessary experience to take on senior roles,” according to Ines Wichert, who authored IBM’s white papers on women’s career progression. These assignments can be “start-up roles, turnaround roles, (and) operational delivery roles.”
Now Apply It
After dissecting what your role models – or Barra, Burns or Sandberg – did, what choices do you want to make, or new habits do you want to adopt? What opportunities do you want to pursue? What new potential solutions come to mind for business challenges you face? Does this analysis trigger ideas for new products or markets, or unique launch campaigns, for example?
Applying conclusions from this analysis to your own situation is, in essence, practicing the other “Innovator’s DNA” skills too – questioning, associating, networking, and experimenting – and could better position you to achieve your business and career goals.
Joan Michelson is a speaker, consultant and journalist who hosts Green Connections Radio podcasts about innovation, advancing women’s careers, especially in STEM, and energy-sustainability.