In a day and age where aspiring female executives are bombarded with all kinds of conflicting advice about advancement, where should you focus your efforts to be truly effective in making headway in your career?
The issues are complicated. Do you need a mentor to teach you the ropes or a sponsor to open doors? How do you get your work noticed without being a braggart? What are the right opportunities to raise your hand for in order to display your ambition?
But let's back up for a moment.
When I graduated from Stanford Business School in 1979, there were few, if any, female mentors or sponsors. It was a playing field that was not level for women, or particularly welcoming to us. As a woman on Wall Street, all I knew to advance in my career was to emulate the workplace behavior of the successful people in my world. So I studied how they conducted themselves in meetings and on the phone, and I watched carefully how the most successful executives communicated. Early on in my career, I worked for one of the "wizards of Wall Street" and learned from him that you can be both unfailingly kind and sympathetic while still being a hard charger who made things happen.
Today, things are better for women in a lot of ways, and there is considerably more conversation around issues of gender equity in business. Yet our numbers are still lagging. Only 15 percent of executives in U.S. companies are women. We occupy 17 percent of available board seats, and a paltry 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Something needs to change. Here are some important steps that I believe can help women who are seeking to leapfrog in their careers: