The rules that keep women back – and how to break them

Executive coaching companies are keen publishers of their insights, and my bookshelf of titles on women at the top includes a good few. Usually I do not blog about them, and believe me, you should be grateful.

But last week I came across a book that should be read by any aspiring career woman (or man). Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power, by Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt, distils the experience of the authors’ decades of coaching experience and their careers at senior levels of large companies.

Flynn, now managing partner at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, says the book came into being as she and her colleagues saw the same patterns emerging in their work with senior women for clients such as Deloitte, Avery Dennison, National Geographic and Wachovia.

“The data show that in the US just 17 per cent of senior management positions are held by women, and progress has been stuck more or less at that percentage for more than a decade,” she says. “To reach the target of a minimum 30 per cent participation by women, we are looking at almost doubling these numbers in the next 10 years.”

Flynn argues that many corporations have done outstanding work in instituting women-friendly policies such as flexible working and mentoring, and now it is time for women to do their bit. “Too often we let our careers happen to us – we no longer drive our careers,” she says.

The book’s argument is simple: women are held back by an adherence to work strategies that are doomed to failure. In a no-nonsense style, the authors explore six key mindsets that women need to change. These are:

  • focus on others (instead of taking centre stage);
  • seek approval (instead of proceeding until apprehended);
  • be modest (instead of projecting personal power);
  • work harder (instead of being politically savvy);
  • play it safe (instead of playing to win); and
  • it’s all or nothing (instead of both-and).

While researching the book, the authors interviewed more than 1,700 executives in Fortune 1000 companies, including a number of female chief executives.

“The [first surprise was] the number of times board directors would say that women mentees, producing fabulous results, failed to understand the importance of image and executive presence.

“The other was the failure of women to understand the informal code that exists in all organisations, to be politically savvy and to realise the importance of both these things,” Flynn says.

She also mentions the tendency for women to come up the ranks through service lines, such as HR and finance, rather than business lines that involve P&L responsibility.

“We call these pink chair roles, and we tell women to get out of them,” she says.

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.