How Women Leaders Build Careers They Thrive In

By Christie Hunter Arscott and Lauren Noël

Early career women understand that building a career and life they thrive in is no small feat. Instead, they find they are navigating a labyrinth of obstacles, twists, turns, and often dead ends. They desire to learn from the stories of triumph, defeat, and resilience of those who have gone before them as they chart their own paths. Research from QUEST identifies six mindsets that high-powered women leaders display. This article outlines how senior women leaders think and provides a roadmap for early career women for how they can flex different mindsets to build careers they thrive in.

 

“How do successful women leaders build careers they thrive in?”

This is the question that is top-of-mind for early career women who desire to learn from the journeys of the accomplished female leaders who have come before them. Beyond seeking inspiration, the next generation of women leaders are asking for practical advice on the capabilities they need to navigate tough choices, tradeoffs, disappointments, and adversities in their quests to build careers they thrive in.

When answering this question, the senior women leaders we interviewed spoke both of the skill sets that have contributed to their rise and of the mindsets that have shaped their overall outlook and approach to building meaningful careers and lives.

When it comes to skill sets, these women display deep technical expertise. Their day-to-day activities and responsibilities showcase their mastery of their fields, whether it be human resources, legal affairs, risk management, operations, or other areas. They also possess a high level of industry knowledge coupled with an understanding of their organisational contexts and cultures. They have a breadth of functional business knowledge and display broad-based business acumen. They understand the core business functions that drive bottom line impact. In addition, they are highly-skilled communicators, strategic thinkers, problem solvers, and people motivators.

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While each leader has demonstrated and celebrated technical skill sets, the focus of each individual’s insights was largely on how their mindsets are essential to unleashing their strengths. Their technical skill sets were table stakes. Mindsets were their critical differentiators and career catalysers.

Six mindsets stood out as key themes among the executives we interviewed. These women leaders are individualistic with a strong sense of personal responsibility for their career growth and progression. They are collective, having a strong appreciation for the contributions others have made to their careers. They have an appetite for adventure and an ability to embrace uncertainty and take on risks. They believe that those who “fail to plan, plan to fail” and purposefully chart out their own goals and activities. They focus inward to build self-knowledge and improve their capabilities. They look outward and are knowledge seekers, curious about the world and those around them. These six mindsets have made the difference in accelerating their careers.

 

Mastering Mindset Dualities

What our research revealed is that the mindsets women leaders have in common are not static, simple, or singular. Through in-depth interviews, these individuals revealed one core commonality: they view these mindsets as a series of dualities. What would appear to be contradictory or conflicting mindsets are essential elements to the success of each leader. Women leaders build careers they thrive in through mastering a set of three mindset dualities.

They display “Mindset Agility”: the ability to pull or release different mindset levers depending on their context, career stage, and aspirations (see figure 2).

These leaders marry what appear to be contradictory mindsets into a dynamic and agile approach toward their careers, their organisations, and their lives. They have the strategic ability to pull and release each mindset lever to differing degrees depending upon their context and objectives. Their mindsets are fluid, flexible, and not fixed. This is “mindset agility”.

Just as limiting beliefs about ourselves, capabilities, strengths, and defining features create self-imposed barriers, limiting and immovable mindsets also prevent women from exploring the powerful levers in their career toolkits.

Women leaders who have crafted careers and lives they love have done so by understanding the delicate, dynamic, and powerful balance of mindsets. They take charge of their own lives with a clear sense of personal responsibility, while also understanding the collective impact of others on their career trajectories.

Many women can fall victim to a life of immovable mindset extremes:

• We can have either an “individualistic” mindset OR a “collective” mindset. We may believe our success is our sole responsibility and overlook the opportunity to build upon the generosity and support of others. Alternatively, we may wait for those around us to elevate us and remain in a standstill as we do not assume personal responsibility for our career.

• We may believe we are either an “adventurer” OR a “planner”.. We may be so meticulously planned that we overlook unexpected and potentially career changing opportunities or turn them down in fear of deviating from our controlled approach. In contrast, we may be an adventurer who wants to leave room for spontaneity, yet that results in us shunning plans and proactive approaches to prioritising what is important to us. We end up living an unorganised, inefficient, and reactive “inbox life”, rather than crafting an “outbox life” according to our priorities, goals, and objectives.

• We may identify as someone that is either “inward” focussed OR “outward” focussed. We may prioritise our self-development and exploration at the expense of opening our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to the critical inputs and insights provided by those around us. Alternatively, we may be so curious about the outside world and our endless quest for external knowledge and expertise that we leave no time or space to build a deeper understanding of ourselves.

With “mindset agility”, the tradeoffs above do not exist. It is not a zero sum game.

Women leaders who have crafted careers and lives they love have done so by understanding the delicate, dynamic, and powerful balance of mindsets. They take charge of their own lives with a clear sense of personal responsibility, while also understanding the collective impact of others on their career trajectories. They take on risks and uncertainty, while purposefully and proactively planning the “why”, “what”, and “hows” of their careers. They have a plan but are open to it changing. They seek a deeper sense of themselves and invest in their personal reflection and development, yet they do not lose sight of their outward lens and hunger for external knowledge, interactions, and insights to fuel their approaches to life and work.

 

Taking Action

The high-powered women we met explain how mindset agility plays out in their careers. For example, Constanze Ulmer-Eilfort, Partner and Global Executive Committee Member, Baker McKenzie, describes how she has mastered the balance between the “I” and the “We” or as we phrase it, the individualistic mindset and collective mindset.

“I make it happen by saying ‘yes’ to opportunities,” Ulmer-Eilfort says. “It is also important to have people around you who will support you and stand beside you.”

Or, consider how Katie Taylor, Chair of the Board, RBC and Former President and Chief Executive Officer, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, sums up the inherent tensions in being planned and purposeful about your next steps in life, yet being opportunistic and open to new adventures:

“A certain amount of planning and thinking about your destination, journey, and where you want to be is helpful. I was never a rigid personal career planner. But, every couple of years, I would pause and take stock of how my ambition, capabilities, and capacity had evolved and then think about my next step… Then, as your career progresses, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. Step up and grab hold of new challenges,” says Taylor.

For high-powered women executives, their mindsets are fluid and flexible. It is this ability to understand and act on the delicate balance between these dualities that has propelled their careers.

Finally, here is how Leena Nair, Chief HR Officer, Unilever explains how her outward mindset co-exists with her inward mindset. “In leadership, I believe in the inner game and the outer game. My purpose, agility, resilience and personal mastery is my inner game. I can control that. How good I am at my inner game determines my outer game, which is the impact I have, the difference I make, the systemic thinking I do, and the strategy I set. Both have to go together. The more self-aware and centered I am as a leader, the bigger difference I can make,” says Nair.

For high-powered women executives, their mindsets are fluid and flexible. It is this ability to understand and act on the delicate balance between these dualities that has propelled their careers. Their journeys serve as a blueprint for how the next generation of women leaders can use ‘mindset agility’ to build careers and lives they love and thrive in.

Action steps for aspiring women leaders:

Reflect on which mindsets you adopt more frequently than others. What is the impact that this has on your life? How is your leaning towards certain mindsets over others impacting your work, sense of fulfillment, direction, and those around you?

Identify actions you can take to enhance your mindset agility. Knowing your predisposition to adopt certain mindsets over others, write down two to three ways you can enhance your agility and take a more flexible approach moving forward.

For instance, if you identify yourself as “planner” but not as a risk-taking “adventurer”, write down two to three actions you can take over the next three months to trial the “adventurer” mindset when the context is appropriate. It could be as simple as: “When deciding whether to take on a risk and facing a fear of failure, connect with an advocate, sponsor or influencer for support and guidance.”

Build in accountability and time for reflection. Share your actions with a colleague, friend or family member who will hold you accountable for action. Take stock of how adopting these mindsets makes you feel and what the impact is on your career and life. Continue to explore ways to be flexible and trial a range of mindsets depending on the context, your career stage, and your aspirations.

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Christie Hunter Arscott is a leadership advisor and researcher, specialising in gender and generational strategies. She serves as Principal of QUEST – a global leadership institute for early career women. In 2017, Christie was selected for the Global Thinkers50 Radar List of the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future of how organisations are managed and led.

Lauren Noël is the Managing Director of QUEST, ICEDR’s global leadership institute for early career women. The International Consortium for Executive Development Research (ICEDR) is a global consortium of 30 world-class companies and 15 business schools. In 2017, Lauren was selected for the Thinkers50 Radar list of the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future of how organisations are managed and led.

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