To get into the c-suite or boardroom, women must S-E-E their way there — with sponsors, executive presence and exposure.
Do you have a sponsor? The most effective sponsors are usually senior people who are — or have already been — in the C-suite and boardroom. They use their influence and connections to get people to open doors for those who desire to walk through them. They speak for you in your absence so that others will let you into the room.
There are two things to consider about sponsors:
First, they are normally white males, since white males make up the majority of senior executives and board members. Don't be bothered by the fact that people who don't look like you are making decisions about you. All of my sponsors, with the exception of one, have been white males.
Second, sponsors pick you; you don't pick them. That is one big difference between mentors and sponsors. How to get sponsors to pick you leads to the second thing you must have:
Jenna Goudreau defined executive presence perfectly in a 2012 article in Forbes magazine: The ability to project confidence, gravitas, decisiveness and poise under pressure. Speaking skills, assertiveness, appearance and the ability to read an audience or situation contribute to your executive presence. In short: When people with executive presence speak, leaders listen.
To help develop my executive presence, I invested in my communication skills. I read books such as How to Speak Like a CEO, How to Become a CEO and What the CEO Wants You to Know. I took media training to work on my presence, body posture and succinctness. Such training doesn't turn you into someone else; it brings out your authenticity by releasing the natural speaker in you.
Exposure is key
The third thing you need is exposure — situations where others get to see you in action. The way to tell if you have a supportive boss is by the opportunities for exposure he or she gives you. The best exposure is presenting to executive management, the CEO and to the board. Those presentations are powerful because everything — including your sponsors and your executive presence — comes together and presents you with the opportunity to be on stage.
Exposure will come as a result of you delivering positive results, especially in difficult situations. My exposure came when I was leading large, enterprise-wide initiatives and turning around troubled businesses. Getting P&L experience offers exposure to all aspects of a business.
My career was functional (IT and transportation) until I asked for and received P&L experience. Roles with P&L responsibility not only gave me exposure, they made me a better leader because I had to align people across functions to achieve growth and profitability goals. I learned and mastered all of the techniques — those not taught in project management or change management classes — to address the challenges of leading change.
My challenge to you is this: Position yourself to attract Sponsors, nurture Executive presence and seek the Exposure needed to get to the C-Suite or boardroom. Then S.E.E. your way to your next promotion.
Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.