I have spent the past four weeks interviewing many of the world’s most highly rated women chief executives for the FT’s forthcoming ranking of Top 50 Women in World Business (to be announced in a separate magazine published with the FT on November 17).
In fact, just eight of them have combined annual revenues ($3,700bn) some 55 per cent greater than the UK’s annual GDP. They represent a complete cross-section of the corporate globe: from agricultural processing to real estate, banking to mining, retail to the internet – all industrial life is here.
Each one of these extraordinary performers followed a different route to the corner office, and none got there by accident. Some are very supportive of the FT’s Women at the Top project; others feel it is irrelevant. One quality stands out, though: irrespective of nationality, culture or sector, they are all very good at just getting on with it.
Andrea Jung, chief executive of Avon, tells the story of how a few months into her first job as a retail trainee with Neiman Marcus she had confided in her parents that putting clothes on hangers was not quite the future she had envisaged for herself and was thinking of quitting. “’Quit?’” they had exclaimed, she told me. “‘The Chinese don’t quit. You learn more from bad than good experiences – that’s how you grow.’ I don’t think I’ve ever let the word leave my lips again.”
Irene Rosenfeld, her equivalent at Kraft, was puzzled by a question about her early ambitions in what was then even more of a male world: “I just never gave much thought to the fact that I couldn’t do it. I did my thing and just assumed the rest would follow.”
When Nahed Taher, chief executive of Gulf One Investment Bank, was hired as the only female employee in a workforce of 4,000 at Saudi’s National Commercial Bank, she was undaunted: “I decided not to be invisible,” Taher recalls about her time there. “I didn’t hide away in my corner, but went out and visited every office in the bank and introduced myself to as many people as possible from the top to the bottom. I offered my services and support. Everyone knew who I was.”
Cynthia Carroll, CEO of Anglo American, was not just the first woman but the first non-South African to head up the mining group, when she was appointed some four years ago. “I believe in my judgment,” Carroll says. “And I’ve had the backing of the board. When people tell me ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘it can’t be done’ you just do it.”
Could there be any better advice for a budding chief executive – whether male or female? When it comes down to it, you need to believe in your own judgment – and just do it.