5 Traits of Successful Professional Women

I recently attended a summit for top professional women in financial services hosted by Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, arguably two of the most powerful financial firms today. The best part of this meeting was the audience: women who run hedge funds, top traders and bankers, C-Suite executives and female CEOs. Throughout the day and into the night we discussed business, the economy and global politics, every now and then adding the lens of women and gender differences. The CEOs and top executives from BlackRock and Goldman Sachs were actively engaged because the women in the room were key decision-makers and influencers. We’re talking power babes.

I thought to myself, “Something important is going on here.” Even 10 years ago, I’m not sure there would have been such a summit with over 100 leaders in financial services, all female except our hosts. Are we finally forming a power base? More importantly, what do we have in common that helped us get close to or break through the proverbial “glass ceiling?” Below I outline a few reasons why I believe the women in the room found professional success. These traits, I think, transcend those I met at the summit — they are aspects that could be found in any successful woman in business, not just in the financial services industry.

We paid our dues.

It wasn’t just luck that got us ahead. Because we joined a male-dominated industry, we felt a need to over-perform to be accepted, never mind promoted. For many, that meant delaying marriage or families, or having a very collaborative spouse. We sacrificed and committed to our careers — it was the right choice for us, if not for everyone. None of us were plucked from the crowd and declared “winners.” We worked our way up the levels in our industry. If you want it, work for it.

We are resilient.

Everyone in this successful crowd had overcome major crises and disappointments. Research was shared about how most women look inside and beat themselves up when they fail, which I certainly have done. In contrast, men tend to blame external factors when things go wrong. Even though it seems immature to blame others, it’s in fact a lot healthier. While we are nursing our wounds guys are pointing fingers, dusting themselves off and getting back to work. Everyone, including me, has learned how to shake things off and move on. No need to point fingers, but let it go.

We have courage.

We’ve all talked about resiliency — handling the bad stuff, learning to cope — but courage is something different. Courage means being willing to stick out your neck to try something that’s new or hard. If resiliency is perseverance, courage is audacity. Most of us in the room had been “the first” at something. Also, we speak up. We shared an observation about the importance of communication. If you are shy, develop the tools to help you overcome it in business. You can’t be heard if you don’t say anything. Toughen up.

We are organizers.

One of the CEOs in the room talked about how her leadership moved up a notch when she demonstrated calm and decisive leadership during the financial crisis. How did she do that? She had a template based on past experience — her own “what to do when things go wrong” playbook. The plan doesn’t mean you have the answers; its’ a process that will help you get the answers and put people to work to solve the problem. It’s amazing how many people aren’t good at planning. I’m a big believer that the person who builds the plan and organizes everyone has the power in the room. Be her.

We are advocates.

There is some truth to the old stigma of women in top jobs who don’t open doors for other women. Perhaps the women who accepted the summit invite sort of self-screened, being types who think about gender issues, but virtually every attendee was active as a mentor and/or sponsor at some time. Over 60 percent of those being mentored by the group at the summit are women, which I think is great news. Unfortunately, a number of attendees said they had gotten some flack from their organizations for “pushing” women’s issues. Of course, asking resilient, mindful, organized and courageous women to hold back on this topic is silly. You get what you give, so be an advocate.

Gail Graham is Chief Marketing Officer at United Capital, a national partnership of private wealth counseling offices. She is responsible for all aspects of marketing, branding and lead generation as well as business strategy and planning.

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