Today, there are more women in leadership positions than at any time in this country’s history. Women are making history and changing the face of this nation’s economy.
Today, women hold 51% of all management and professional positions. Fourteen percent of the military are women.
There are 91 women who are elected members of Congress – the highest ever.
Most impressive, however, is the movement of women into entrepreneurial leadership. WLE members know the statistics — women have been starting and growing businesses faster than men for over two decades now. Women-owned businesses that have surpassed the $1 million mark are no longer a rarity. Today, the Center for Women’s Business Research reports that 20% of all businesses over $1 million are owned and led by women, and many of these businesses are multi-million dollar enterprises.
The perennial question is: what sets the women who own and lead the fastest growing and most substantial businesses apart? What can women who aspire to grow their businesses learn from these women?
To help answer that question, I combed through twenty years of research with thousands of women business owners at the Center for Women’s Business Research, added in the latest research on leading women in business conducted by universities and other researchers, and drew upon my personal experiences with this nation’s top women entrepreneurs.
The result was ten characteristics that clearly described and differentiated the most successful women business owners.
1. Define Success in Your Own Terms
It is SO easy to let others – well intentioned others – define success for you. Think about it. Your parents, your spouse/partner, your children, the people who work for you, your friends – they all try to define success for you.
Women are sensitive to social pressures, and it is so easy to fall into the trap of embracing the existing definitions of success. One of the last frontiers for women is to recognize that their personal definition of success may differ from the traditional definitions. That’s why you became a business owner – you do think differently!
All the various “others” offer you great insights and ideas. You should listen to them and consider what they are telling you. Many times, you will find others see strengths in you that you have not recognized. But, in the final analysis, YOU must take control of your destiny and define success in your own terms.
2. Be Values Based
The most successful women business owners have examined their values and know what they are. Further, they have the COURAGE to act upon these values.
“Values are your core,” says Francine Manilow, president, Manilow Suites. “Everything else around you may be in flux and changing – but your values remain rock solid.”
3. Create Cultures of Success
Focus on your internal business culture and build an environment that reflects your values. The most successful women business owners create organizations that are characterized by inclusiveness and diversity; team orientation; consultation; coaching and individual development; and inspiring others to move toward a goal.
In a research project, we asked women who owned substantial businesses what they were doing differently than their previous employer. The response was simple: “We ask employees for their opinions and insights – and we actually listen to the responses.”
Structure your organization so that each employee will feel successful both professionally and personally. The result is an organization that is successful because it reflects the success of every member.
4. Trust Your Instincts
Instincts are not whimsical feelings without foundation. Says Laura Henderson, former CEO of Prospect Associates, “My instinct is really my hard drive of experience, knowledge, and insights collected throughout my lifetime. When faced with a situation that requires a decision or a judgment call, all of the factors present in the current situation go through this hard drive as fast as the brain can process.”
“The speed of the brain may make it appear that it is a hunch but it is not,” she continues. “It is based on millions or perhaps trillions of bytes of information, providing me with a life-learned understanding of what I am facing.” When something feels right, it usually IS right; and conversely, when it feels wrong, it usually IS wrong.
5. Set High Goals
The most successful women business owners set high goals. And when, they achieve these goals, they ratchet up to the next level, always setting the bar higher. In fact, research by the Center for Women’s Business Research showed that the only statistically significant predictor of whether a woman business owner will obtain capital and expand her business is not length of time in business, size of business or industry – it is her goal for growth.
6. Nurture the Midas Touch
The most successful women business owners are financially savvy. They educate themselves about business finance by taking classes and reading and seeking out knowledgeable advisors. Studies from the Center for Women’s Business Research show that the women who own and lead the larger, faster growing businesses embrace a discipline of creating and using financial reports as a management tool.
“It’s also vital to have a long term capital strategy for your business,” says Nina McLemore, CEO, Nina McLemore LLC.
“You must have tight control over cash flow and know how and when to leverage both external and internal sources of capital for cash management and growth.”
Most importantly, value wealth creation – for the business and for yourself – and make this part of your plan.
7. Build Multiple Support Networks
The women with the more substantial firms join more networks and a greater variety of networks. Recognize that different organizations provide different value to you and your business. Move outside your community and women’s networks to join industry groups; associations where you can meet new prospects and expand business relationships; organizations where you can contribute to your community; and organizations to hone your business skills.
In addition, build networks of friends and colleagues who are there to provide support in the tough times and help you celebrate the successes.
8. Treat Your Time and Energy as Scarce Resources
Treat your time and energy as resources that are as scarce and critical as any item in your business or family budget. The more successful you are, the more others seek your advice and assistance. These requests come from worthy groups including community leaders, for profit and non-profit organizations, customers, employees, business colleagues and aspiring business owners.
It is flattering and often you believe in the cause or goals of the organization. So it is hard to turn down the multiple requests.
However, time and energy are not infinite. The most successful women business owners set priorities – based on their personal goals and values. Take into account the demands of both your business and your personal life as you establish priorities. You have just so much time and energy, and you must use it wisely.
This means saying YES at the right times; and hardest of all, saying NO at the right times.
9. Invest in Yourself
Invest both money and time in your intellectual, physical, and spiritual well-being. Sometimes, the time is harder to allocate than the money! The most successful women business owners are life-long learners. Whether it is conferences, seminars, classes, consulting with other leaders, or reading the latest literature, you must invest in both money and time in your intellectual well-being.
Invest in your physical well-being. To be the leader you aspire to be at all times, takes a high level of energy and wellness. (How many times have you heard someone say about you – “I just don’t know where she gets all that energy!”?) Commit yourself to regular exercise routines and keep up with medical visits.
Invest in your spirituality. This can run the gambit from formal religion to quiet meditation; from readings to keeping a personal journal. Whatever your approach, stay in touch with your inner core of self and awareness and values.
10. Always Leave Time for Serendipity
“Serendipity is about being open to life,” says Ellyn McKay, president, CEO Vision. The genesis for number 10 comes from a comment made by a successful woman business owner, who upon hearing that two people were having an affair, found that her first thought was not to be shocked – her first thought was “Where did she find the time!”
Leaving time for serendipity means not packing your schedule so full, not being so focused on the day-to-day operations of the business that you don’t have time to consider new business ideas or to think strategically about your business.
Equally as important, it is about taking those special unplanned moments with your family or friends to celebrate or just to do something together.
Remember the early commercial for cell phones where the child says to her mother as they as getting ready to go to day care –“Mommy, when can I be a client?” The next scene shows the mother and child at the beach – the child playing and the mother able to keep up with her business via the cell phone.
It is these serendipitous moments that bring joy and delight and new vision into our personal and professional lives. Grab hold of them!
Thank You Sharon Hadary
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