'Authenticity' Serves Women Executives Well

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Women who rise to the upper levels of business follow the same recipe for success as men as they combine vision, intellect, guts and hard work with their ability to influence others. They also add another ingredient: authenticity.

That's the conclusion reached by Julie Wolf, Ph.D., managing director of RHR International, a corporate psychology firm based in Illinois. Wolf conducted in-depth interviews with some 100 female executives ranging from vice presidents to chief executives, as well as stakeholders in U.S. companies. "Lots of people have looked at what it takes to get there," she explains. "What we were interested in is what makes you successful once you're there, particularly from a psychological perspective."

By "authenticity," the researchers mean being genuine and bringing your whole self to the table. "Although we haven't done a comparison with a male group, we're hypothesizing that there is more pressure on women to be inauthentic in their path to the top," Wolf says. By that she means, "to conform to existing norms, which are more likely to be male norms."

RHR's research found successful women are externally authentic, meaning they're viewed by others as genuine and real. They're also internally authentic. They have a core confidence and sense of calm, empowerment and integrity, and are upfront about family and community commitments.

Of course, if who you are doesn't match your company's culture, being yourself isn't going to get you far. "What these interview participants did say (is) that on their path they had to be sensitive to the cultural and environmental norms," says Wolf. "The key is that they didn't over do it. It's important to recognize when you don't need to adapt. There's a subtlety, and the risk is a woman over-interprets the need to adapt."

Wolf also found that stretch roles, when taken on with an appropriate level of support, propel people upward. One of the women Wolf interviewed was a highly successful managing director at an investment bank who was doing well in her current marketing position. Yet, she knew the power and dollars were in sales, so she asked her boss to help her move. With his support and advocacy she succeeded in sales and moved into a leadership position at the firm.

Where's Your Comfort Zone?

One measure of authenticity is feeling comfortable about external commitments to families and community organizations, says Wolf. "If a woman is denying those and not bringing the skills she develops in those areas into work, that's leaving a big part of herself outside of work," she believes.

External commitments also increase your skills and capabilities as a leader, she notes. "To be nurturing with the Girl Scout who needs a little support, demanding with the doctor who's caring for your parents, and influential with the board you're on builds skills," she says. "The women we interviewed made a conscious decision to bring those skills into the workplace. They didn't learn them at a management training opportunity."

In the end, women will rise to the top for the same reasons men do - they're talented, well-liked, persuasive performers who get a little lucky. However, the women in this study identified a powerful accelerant made through a catalytic process from a list of ingredients every woman already possesses: the ability to value the experience she's gained both on and off the job, to like herself and to simply be herself at work.

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