For women with leadership ambitions, there is no shortage of advice for how to reach the top. By learning to lean in, speak out, negotiate, delegate, and a dozen other behaviors, women everywhere are launching themselves through the glass ceilings of their organizations, landing jobs at or near the C-suite level.
But what happens after the promotion? While top-level jobs are tough on everyone, the transition to senior management comes with extra challenges for women. Some are psychological, pertaining to gender differences in risk-taking and self-confidence. Others are structural; in parenting, for instance, childcare and domestic duties are still disproportionately shouldered by the female partner. While these barriers affect women at all levels of the organization, they are particularly pronounced in the pressure-cooker environment at the top, putting women at a disadvantage.
Dealing with this challenge is something I am deeply familiar with. I am a certified organizational psychologist with a Ph.D. in business economics. Over the last 17 years, I have served as an executive coach to hundreds of senior women leaders, many of them working in heavily male-dominated environments such as banking, the military, and the police force. My work has given me some insights into how women leaders can improve their chances of success once they have reached the top.
At the center is managing your mental energy: How to gain it, maintain it, and not drain it. Below are three tactics that my female clients have used to succeed in the particular context of a top-level job: knowing your superchargers, finding a work ally, and reducing your anxiety levels.
1. Know your psychological superchargers
Like it or not, in all but the most evolved organizations, the idea of maintaining a work-life balance at the very top is simply fictional. As Alexandra, a U.S. hedge fund partner, told me: “If you want balance, go be a yoga Nidra instructor.” Another top management team I worked with had the motto “Deliver or Die”; there was little doubt as to where “me time” belonged in that particular team’s list of priorities. Given this brutal reality, combined with the extra domestic burdens imposed on many women, how do female top leaders manage to recharge their batteries?
Part of the answer lies in realizing that not all sources of energy are equal. Specifically, some activities are what I call “psychological superchargers” — that is, activities that yield a disproportionately bigger energy boost than others. The nature of these superchargers varies from person to person — I’ll share some examples shortly — but consistently, the most successful women I’ve worked with figured out what theirs were and made sure to tap into them regularly.
In looking for your own superchargers, keep two things in mind: First, set aside culturally mandated ideas about what women are supposed or not supposed to gain energy from (spoiler alert: spending time with kids is not always a net contributor to your mental reserves), and look instead to your quirkier sides. One leader I worked with got her mental boost from filling out a type of paint-by-numbers mandala drawing; for her, it was an almost meditative activity. Another leader found it hugely energizing to browse executive education programs she might sign up for, as if perusing intellectual holiday destinations. As she told me, “I get my fix from the way it makes the world feel bigger.” A third one found energy in literature and in following new trends in a totally different field.
Second, indulge your inner hedonist. On the personality tests, many of the female leaders I coach score very low on hedonism-related measures. They are highly conscientious people, a trait that served to get them into the top job, but they also have a tendency to forget having fun and enjoying life. Perhaps for that reason, superchargers not uncommonly involve a bit of lavish spending. Senior leadership positions tend to come with bigger paychecks — and while your instinct might be to save the money, don’t forget that occasional self-indulgent spending can be a good investment, too.
2. Find a work ally
Your personal life, of course, is not the only source of energy; under the right conditions, your work can also contribute to your mental reserves. This is especially true if your team is characterized by what Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson calls psychological safety; that is, the sense that your teammates are on your side, and that it’s safe to make mistakes or say something stupid within the group.
The problem is, those conditions are generally not present at the top. Senior leadership teams are often political, and failures typically have much larger consequences. And while it is possible to build a real sense of team spirit at the top with time and effort, new team members can rarely count on partaking in it before they’ve proven themselves. What, then, can be done to create a psychological work environment that helps maintain your energy?
The answer, I’ve found, is to abandon the idea that your team as a whole can serve as a safe place. Instead, concentrate on gaining a single close ally — that is, a person in your team that you feel free to discuss things with behind the scenes and use as an outlet for the inevitable frustrations that come with the job. The successful senior-level women I’ve worked with can immediately answer the question, “Who can you speak freely to?” — and they are deliberate about cultivating these relationships, using them to maintain their energy as part of the day-to-day.
With luck, you may have an ally on the team already. But if you don’t, there are ways you can speed up the process of creating such a relationship. First, don’t necessarily focus on gender. It may feel natural to try to ally yourself with another woman (if the team has one). But what I’ve found to be more important than gender is shared values: that the other person is someone you can relate to on a deeper level, and someone you can feel free to share a laugh with. Alliances of this nature has strong parallels to friendships — some of my clients refer to them as “work marriages” — and their formation often transcend more superficial commonalities.
Second, make your own particular passions known. Alexandra, the hedge fund partner, had colleagues who were obsessed with American football, but as she told me: “I never talk about sports. It doesn’t interest me.” Instead, she regularly brought up the things she cared about and sought out the individuals who responded to those things, building her relationships based on authentic commonalities.
Finally, create opportunities to talk to people one-on-one, outside of the usual work setting. For some, this means sharing a car ride to an offsite or making sure you get a seat next to each other on a long flight. Daily routines can help too: Some of my clients have built alliances through exercising together or carpooling on their way to or from work, using that time to discuss new ideas or figuring out how to cope with the political game around them. There is something about such “offstage” periods that promotes opening up and sets the stage for creating stronger bonds.
3. Overcome anxiety by channeling your values
Risk-taking is part and parcel of corporate careers, and few people, men or women, enter the top ranks of the organization without having made a bold gamble or two along the way. But at the top, the nature of risk-taking changes significantly. There is a lot more at stake; there are much larger degrees of uncertainty around the choices you’ll have to make; and decisions might require you to stand alone, going against an otherwise unified group of people with more seniority in the role.
In my experience, women struggle with this shift a lot more than men, to the point where anxiety becomes an overriding emotion in their new role. This creates a double handicap. As an always-on background emotion, anxiety becomes a major energy leech, constantly siphoning off your mental surplus. At the same time, when your anxiety level is high, it is difficult to take chances with new approaches, or even to see the situation with clear eyes. So, how should female leaders find the daily courage to step up to the plate, make tough choices, or stand alone on an issue — all while not allowing the pressure to drain away their energy?
It’s all rooted in your larger motivation: Do you focus on your career, aiming to maintain or even improve your position or political standing in the group? Or do you focus more on making a difference? Paradoxically, I find that women who focus on their career as their main goal are less likely to be truly impactful as a leader. When your biggest aim is to avoid visible failures, the temptation to play it safe can lead to a career dominated by perpetual anxiety, and by a fatal tendency to shy away from the tough, career-defining calls.
In comparison, the successful top-level women I’ve coached were certainly mindful of their careers. But they didn’t see it as an end goal. Rather, they saw it as a tool to create results, changes, and breakthroughs around things they really cared about. Their focus on doing what’s right created a mental bulwark against the more extreme degrees of anxiety, allowing them to keep calm under pressure and save their energy for where it was most needed.
For that reason, ask yourself: what can I vouch for? The ability to have the courage of your convictions is essential, as is having the nerve to follow a path — not because it is the easiest and most pleasant way to go, but because it represents the right solution when things are chaotic and difficult. Even in the stormiest sea, there is a calm that comes with staying true to your convictions.
Jointly, the three tactics I have outlined here can make a real difference in terms of managing your energy and succeeding at the top. And in more ways than one, doing so is crucial, because a lot hangs in the balance. Unfairly or not, the women that now enter top management face the added burden of showing that they can perform as well or better than their male peers. It’s not enough to shatter the glass ceiling. We have to make sure it stays shattered. To that end, we need to focus on how more women can reach the top — and how they can perform once they have arrived.