5 Career Secrets Women Need to Know

UPDATED: January 8, 2020
PUBLISHED: December 1, 2017

What do successful women know that you don’t (yet)? How did they make it to the top? What are their secrets?

Related: The Best Career Advice, From Successful People Who Made It to the Top

We spoke to thousands of successful women for our book The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders and discovered the five P’s that helped them get there: purpose, presence, preparation, power and positivity.

1. Purpose

Everyone talks about engaging in work that has meaning. When we bring passion and energy to the work we do, it makes long days more tolerable. Most people understand this but don’t know what to do if they don’t already have that meaning.

I once coached a woman who was bored, apathetic and unchallenged. The work itself was fine; it paid well and she had an easy routine to her day. Sounds good, right? No! After further coaching, she decided the status quo was no longer enough. An easy work schedule was coming at the expense of fulfillment.

After months of due diligence and connecting strategically with key relationships (also known as targeted networking), she aligned herself in a completely different area of the company. She sought after and accepted a stretch assignment. She went outside the proverbial comfort zone and said yes to an entirely different line of business where her skills were needed to create a new vision and fix a broken team.

Learning the new business was just a fringe benefit compared to the opportunity she had to contribute and feel a sense of purpose, passion and accomplishment again.

2. Presence

Picture this: You are in a conference room. Everyone is seated and ready to go with the exception of the leader—a high profile, talented woman. She comes flying in with her hair disheveled, papers overflowing, briefcase and purse drooping down her shoulder, laptop upside down, and apologizing repeatedly while over-explaining her delay in excruciating detail. I have been that woman!

Executive presence is not just about a great wardrobe (although looking sharp and put together is important). It is about confidence. Do you carry yourself with solid posture? Do you introduce yourself fully and with a firm handshake? Can you make a point in a meeting succinctly and with a well-thought-out point of view?

Ask others how you show up and listen to the feedback. Your presence is an attribute you’ll never quite be finished improving.

Related: The Habits of 12 Highly Successful Women

3. Preparation

This comes in so many sizes and shapes, but it can also be an Achilles heel for us. The key is to be prepared but not drowning in your preparation. Many women feel a need to keep their heads down and hope good things will come to them. One woman who I met was on the brink of promotion to the partnership ranks. As I gathered her feedback, it became clear that she missed out on key leadership opportunities and connections because she spent an inordinate amount of time in her office. She told me repeatedly she could not attend key networking events because she was “too busy” or “too tired.”

She was working harder instead of smarter.

Sometimes preparation looks like shopping an idea at a casual lunch. Sometimes it looks like blocking off time to prepare for meetings ahead, or planning 50-minute meetings versus the full hour, which allows time to take a quick break, jot notes from the previous meeting and mentally turn the page to the next engagement.

Remember, humans are not meant to run like computers. Preparation is necessary, but create a routine so you can manage it.

4. Power

As women, we have a love-hate relationship with this word. In our book, we discuss the term “influence” as a way to embrace the concepts of power and office politics while maintaining authenticity.

“Studies show that imitating male behavior doesn’t translate to professional advancement for women,” says Kathryn Heath, Flynn Heath Holt Leadership’s founding partner. “We, women, do not like unbridled competition, backroom deals or trading favors. We favor collaboration, inclusion and win-win outcomes. The distinctive missing link is influence.”

Ask yourself if you’re comfortable with your power position and your expert power (that which comes from your knowledge and skills). The answer might be yes, but personal power is often a more nuanced skill. This is where influence becomes a critical skill and one we must learn how to use effectively.

If we want to advance our personal, professional and organizational agendas, we must influence others to achieve the success we want.

5. Positivity

Raise your hand if you enjoy working with leaders who can be “Debbie Downers.” I do not and nor do most women (or men) that I know. Work is hard, especially if you are passionate and purposeful. There is a personal investment here that can add emotion.

Numerous studies indicate that men mistake a woman’s passionate argument as being “emotional.” Other studies suggest women have a harder time “letting go” and staying positive. Our firm calls this “retained angst.”

We, as women, have to work harder to overcome this positivity perception deficit. Building followership is critical to our future as women leaders, and people want to follow positive leaders.

You have likely heard bits and pieces of this advice before. Now it is a matter of focus and intention. Which of these is most important for you right now? Start there. Enroll others to help you. Unlock the hidden potential standing before you. Good luck!

Related: Strategies for Women to Rule the Workplace

Diana Faison, M.Ed., is a partner at Flynn Heath Holt with expertise in the fields of women’s leadership development and strategic planning.