Nine steps to reach the executive suite

“We are good at looking at what potential looks like – this man, this woman has got the right stuff. We are also good at identifying traits and behaviours that make good leaders. But we are less good at identifying the experiences, the key job assignments that a career needs to have.”

So says Ines Wichert, a senior psychologist with Kenexa High Performance Institute and author of a new book, Where have all the senior women gone? During Wichert’s decades in management consulting she was continually faced with high-potential, ambitious women in mid-management who, 10 years later, had become disillusioned, lacking in drive and with careers that were flatlining.


Drawing on in-depth interviews with 54 senior women including some chief executives, she sought to create a map of the key experiences and types of assignments that those heading for the top need to have.

With a focus on large corporates, she identifies nine critical assignments that convert high potential into a seat on the board. While the book’s advice applies to the ambitious male as well as the ambitious female, it is written “through a woman’s lens” and accepts there are particular challenges facing women. Wichert explains:

“For example taking an international assignment in a very patriarchal society can be tough. It’s not always easy to convince your manager you are the best person to take on such a project.”

While “men are surrounded by role models through the organisation that can show them what to do,” women “too often fall into legal and support roles”, she says.

“Women I interviewed who had made it to the top talked about evaluating assignments very carefully to ensure they learned something new with each step, and looked for something that would stretch them and push them out of their comfort zone. Often a sponsor had encouraged them to go for these critical roles.”

This book encourages women to view their careers strategically and to strengthen their leadership potential by opting for critical roles that will test them and prove their mettle. It is a recommended read.

Nine key assignments:

The early stretch assignment: Look for a job in which you can learn more about the organisation and build credibility with senior managers. You should be a bit out of your depth. Done right, this can allow you to progress faster in the early part of your career.

A global role: This could be a posting overseas or responsibility for an international region from a base in Britain. You will be on your own and you will discover that your tried and tested approaches do not work.

Operational experience: Take on profit and loss accountability — be prepared for failure.

People management: Learn how to build and lead a strong team. Do not be afraid to delegate or to take authority.

A different environment: This might mean a new function, a new company or even a new industry. The key is that it forces you on to a steep learning curve.

Create something new: Come up with a strategy, a business plan and a way to negotiate corporate bureaucracy.

Organisational change: This might mean taking responsibility for a merger or restructuring.

Turnround professional: Working in a broken environment can be difficult, but it can teach you how to take action fast to deal with problems and re-establish commitment.

The executive committee: Here you will have a wider remit when it comes to influencing and making decisions, but you will also be expected to deliver results at the most senior level.

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

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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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.