• Published March 1, 2024
  • 7 Minute Read

4 Keys to Success for Women Leaders

Published March 1, 2024
Women's Leadership Topics & Themes Worth Exploring

For women leaders today, success is about more than maintaining balance, breaking barriers, and achieving professional goals. Burdened by the effects of the global pandemic and its aftermath, many women are still feeling spread thin, burnt out, and deeply torn between caregiving responsibilities and work.

During the pandemic, women’s labor force participation dipped to its lowest level in over 3 decades, and although numbers are back up again now to pre-pandemic levels, many organizations are still struggling to retain and regain the women who were disproportionately leaving the workforce.

So before we explore these women’s leadership themes that emerged from our research on what an individual woman can do to bolster her own personal chances of success, we first want to emphasize our belief that the larger culture in which a woman operates will have a direct effect on her ability to succeed.

Key Women’s Leadership Topics & Some Larger Context Around Them

That’s why we say that the most effective investments in women’s leadership take a dual-pronged approach, with a simultaneous focus on increasing equity, providing support, and building a sense of belonging at work, while also ensuring that any development opportunities address important women’s leadership topics and equip individual women to recognize and embrace the themes that will enable them to thrive.

Most importantly, enterprise initiatives to support and develop women leaders (or diversity programs in general) are more likely to be long-lasting and successful when they include a focus on increasing equity. Equity is such a critical and foundational piece of the DEI puzzle that at CCL, we urge organizations to reframe DEI efforts as EDI efforts to prioritize equity first.

With all that being said, our research has found that highly successful women leaders often approach their careers and their lives by embracing these 4 keys to success:

  • Agency,
  • Authenticity,
  • Connection, and
  • Wholeness.

These 4 themes are woven into their career decisions and leadership styles. Collectively, these themes reveal deeper, more complex images of successful women and offer opportunities for reflection and insight for those who are navigating their leadership journeys. Together, these themes are a useful starting point for individual women to explore, and for organizations to consider as women’s leadership topics to prioritize in their development initiatives and retention efforts.

infographic showing the 4 keys to success for women leaders highlighting the importance of women’s leadership topics

The 4 Keys to Success for Individual Women Leaders

Women’s Leadership Topics & Themes That Emerged From Our Research

1. Agency.

What do we mean by agency? “Agency” refers to intentional actions taken toward achieving a desired goal. Agency is about taking control of your career, being your own pilot, and feeling as if you’re shaping your job, your leadership style, and your life.

For example, women leaders may decide to take steps toward becoming more comfortable exercising authority or being more politically savvy. Strategies for realizing greater agency include:

2. Authenticity.

Authenticity is being genuine, and being yourself. As the lines between work and home life continue to blur, it’s more important than ever before for women to resist the urge to comply with policies, expectations, practices, and environments that are in opposition to their needs as leaders.

Authenticity is important for all leaders, but it can be particularly challenging for women to show up as their genuine selves if their organizational culture is rife with gendered double standards. The importance of leading authentically for women in our research study was resounding, whether or not they felt they were living extremely authentic lives.

Authenticity comes from finding your own style, your way of leading. By developing self-awareness, you gain clarity about your values, behaviors, preferences, and skills. You can then determine the gap between “fitting in” and being yourself.

To increase your self-awareness, seek feedback to better understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and to understand the impact you have on others. Evaluate how your needs, motivations, and goals change over time, and continue to reassess what’s of value to you. Look for patterns, but be open to possibilities.

3. Connection.

Connection involves a focus on relationships. A desire for closer friendships and family ties drove many of the goals, choices, and decisions of the women in our study. Even the busiest executives invest in connections, both personally and professionally. To strengthen your professional connections:

  1. Slow down and take time for people.
  2. Build relationships.
  3. Network, network, network.

Relationships and connection are important for all leaders, but they are especially important for women and other historically excluded groups. Learn more about cultivating a network of champions, and if you feel unsure about why or how, explore our networking tips for women. Find a mentor or establish your personal “board of directors” to serve as a support system and sounding board.

4. Wholeness.

Wholeness represents the desire to seek roles beyond work or to unite different life roles into an integrated whole. During these uncertain times, wholeness can sound especially daunting for women who already feel overburdened and/or under-supported at work and home. However, this was the most dominant theme we found in our research.

Some women in our study reported that they were concerned that they had nothing else in their lives but work. Others expressed concern about wholeness because they feel fragmented and divided between work and other life roles. They value multiple roles, life beyond work, and a broader definition of success.

To help you gain a sense of wholeness, let go of the idea that it’s about “balance” and an equitable division of time between work and other roles. Wholeness is about setting priorities and valuing all your commitments. It’s about setting boundaries and saying no to roles or obligations that no longer serve you. Learn more about how to be a holistic leader in every facet of your life.

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, Change Systems, Not Women: Celebrating “Feminine” Leadership, to learn our recommendations for ways to support and develop women leaders with a systemic lens, and how to take a balanced approach that avoids overvaluing leadership traits traditionally associated with “masculine” qualities over “feminine” ones.

A Closer Look at These 4 Themes at the Enterprise Level

How Organizations Can Prioritize These Women’s Leadership Topics in Development Initiatives

As noted above, for women leaders to succeed, their organization’s culture must be structured in a way that supports them in cultivating these 4 keys, and that starts with a focus on equity. Once policies, procedures, and behaviors that promote equity have been established, organizations and senior leaders can additionally encourage women (and everyone) to embrace the 4 themes that our research uncovered are often integral to success, in the following specific ways:

  • Promote agency by ensuring that bosses give their direct reports as much autonomy as possible. For example, don’t make assumptions about whether a woman on your team might want to take on a difficult new project or role — just ask her directly and let her speak for herself. The key is to cultivate a culture of respect where women leaders feel psychologically safe to share their preferences and perspectives candidly. When individuals feel a sense of agency and control, and psychological safety at work, they’re more likely to stay engaged and committed to their organizations.
  • Support authenticity by offering resources, training, and ample opportunities to reflect, so leaders better understand their own preferences, motivations, and the ways that aspects of social identity affect how they lead. Senior leaders should focus on building a culture of inclusive leadership so that all people, including women leaders, feel able to bring their whole, authentic selves to work.
  • Build connections by ensuring senior leaders are aware of the importance of coaching, mentorship, and sponsorship for women. You can download our free resources on sponsoring and mentoring women, which include questions and exercises that can help create connection, opportunities, and building those critical relationships.
  • Encourage wholeness by making space for your people to gain clarity about what they need and then show support in managing work-life conflicts so they gain greater resilience.

And again, enterprise efforts to develop women leaders in support of these key themes will be most effective if your organization takes a systemic approach to DEI culture change.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Organizations can support women leaders by providing women’s leadership development exploring all of these women’s leadership topics and by partnering with us to create organizational cultures that that help attract and retain more women and people of color with our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion experts and solutions.

  • Published March 1, 2024
  • 7 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Based on Research by

Marian Ruderman
Marian Ruderman, PhD
Honorary Senior Fellow

With over 30 years of experience in the field of leadership development and over 80 publications, Marian is widely regarded as a thought leader in the field. Her particular areas of expertise include the career development of women, work-life integration, the intersection of voice and leadership recognition, and the role of well-being in leadership development. She has worked with a diverse array of colleagues and clients from around the globe conducting both original research and bringing into CCL the best of what the larger field of leadership scholarship has to offer.

With over 30 years of experience in the field of leadership development and over 80 publications, Marian is widely regarded as a thought leader in the field. Her particular areas of expertise include the career development of women, work-life integration, the intersection of voice and leadership recognition, and the role of well-being in leadership development. She has worked with a diverse array of colleagues and clients from around the globe conducting both original research and bringing into CCL the best of what the larger field of leadership scholarship has to offer.

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About CCL

At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world — including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.