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How Successful Women Sustain Career Momentum

Jackie began her career as a scientist doing drug discovery. After a few years, she realized she wanted to work on the strategy side of the business. But every time she tried to make the shift, she was turned down.

“I kept hearing, ‘You’re just a chemist,’” she recalled. The same thing happened when she applied for external roles that would expand her marketing or business experience. No one could see past her current expertise. She felt stuck.

Jackie was facing a problem that many women face in their careers: feeling like she had lost momentum.

As executive coaches for women leaders, we wanted to understand why some women are able to sustain and maintain career momentum, despite the systemicstructural problems women — and especially women of color — face in the workplace.

We interviewed 37 women in senior leadership roles (senior director, vice president, senior vice president, C-suite) whose experiences spanned more than 75 corporations. Of the women we spoke to 25% were Black leaders, 75% were white.

We asked these leaders to describe pivotal moments that helped them maintain career momentum. Analyzing these moments helped us understand the key traits that helped them persevere when they felt stuck. Though the women we spoke with had varied backgrounds, interests, personalities, and careers, they employed at least two of the three following behaviors to sustain momentum during these pivotal moments.

1. A focused drive

Call it tenacity, sheer determination, or persistence. When they faced setbacks, these women told stories of tapping into their inner mettle that helped them situate short-term difficulties in the context of their higher goals.

For example, Lydia never wavered in her goal to be CEO of an investment company. She saw every career opportunity as a way to build momentum towards her goal.  “I had a variety of experiences that helped me develop and get to know all parts of the business, from HR to technology, operations, administration, sales and marketing,” she said. “I moved to the retirement business and then from banking to insurance. It is important to package yourself for the role you want.”

2. An incessant desire to learn

These women showed more than the capacity to learn, they were motivated to seek out opportunities that provided new experiences, challenges, and knowledge.

For example, Mary, now president and CEO of a public company, began as an attorney. She agreed to run regulatory affairs, then moved into director of finance, where she says she started from scratch. “I enlisted analysts several levels below me, saying, ‘Take me down the 101 — Finance 101.’”  She asked the right questions, cross-examined the data, called the shots, and watched stocks soar.

Mara is former CEO of a large medical district that includes 560 acres of medical research facilities. “I didn’t know anything about real estate,” she told us.  “I didn’t know how to transform an organization. But I did know health care and how to pull teams of experts together and manage toward a goal.”

3. An agile mindset

The women we spoke with all demonstrated flexible thinking, including the ability to quickly assess a situation and determine a path forward. When it came to their own careers, they reinvented themselves or transformed the projects they were working on.

“Jen” was a vice president before she was 30, and doors kept opening until she was such an excellent chief administrative officer (CAO) that no one could see her as a CFO — she was passed over twice in two companies for the job. After discussing with a trusted advisor, she decided she needed to recast her work, success, and reputation into a new way of seeing her as a CFO.  So she moved once more, helped build this next company’s financial customers, worked with the product team to prioritize features, sold to other CAOs, and ran the business in Europe. These broad successes secured her move to CFO and president of a global corporation. This is what it means to have an agile mindset. It is about being versatile and open to new options and ways of getting to a goal.

Tellingly, all of the Black women we spoke with shared all three behaviors. They also described feeling alone in their respective professional worlds and having to rely on friends, family, and community outside of their professional circles to help them keep their momentum going. The Black interviewees also mentioned patience, double binds, pressures to do well to help others in their community, and the perceived pressure that their failure would reflect on their families, as well as their personal and professional Black communities.

Harvard Business Review

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