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What does it mean to be successful? For today’s high-achieving women, success is more than breaking barriers and achieving their professional goals. Success is about how they get there, too.

Our research shows that as high-achieving women approach their careers and their lives, they’re factoring in 5 key themes: agency, authenticity, connection, self-clarity, and wholeness.

These 5 themes are woven into the career decisions and leadership styles of women leaders. Collectively, the themes reveal deeper, more complex images of successful women and offer insight for women who are navigating their leadership journey. Let’s take a closer look at the 5 themes:

1. Agency is about taking control of your career. It is about being your own pilot and feeling as if you’re shaping your job, your leadership style, and your life. In our study, “agency” referred to intentional actions taken towards achieving a desired goal. For example, you may take steps toward becoming more comfortable exercising authority or learning to be more politically sophisticated within your organization. Strategies for realizing greater agency include:

  • Analyzing your career steps.
  • Setting realistic, specific goals and developing a plan for achieving them.
  • Asking for challenges outside your current functional orientation.
  • Seeking recognition.
  • Asking for what you deserve.

2. Authenticity is being genuine, and being yourself. The importance of authenticity to women in the study was resounding, whether or not they felt they were living extremely authentic lives. Authenticity comes from finding your style, your way of leading. By developing self-awareness, you gain clarity about your values, preferences, and skills. You can then determine the gap between “fitting in” and being yourself. Choose the kind of work, roles, and organizations that are compatible with who you are while being mindful of the choices and tradeoffs you’re willing to make.

3. 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 invested in connections, both personally and professionally. To strengthen your professional connections, slow down and take time for people, build relationships, and network, network, network. Find a mentor or establish your personal “board of directors” to serve as a support system and sounding board.

4. Self-clarity comes from understanding your values, motivations, and behaviors. It’s the desire to have a greater sense of self. The search for self-clarity motivated many of the women we surveyed to continue their own growth and development. To increase your self-clarity, seek feedback to better see your 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. Make learning and reflection a priority.

5. Wholeness represents the desire to seek roles beyond work or to unite different life roles into an integrated whole. It was the most dominant theme we found. Some women were concerned that they had nothing else in their lives but work. Others were concerned about wholeness because they felt fragmented and divided between work and other life roles. They valued 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 or equitable division of time between work and other roles. Wholeness is about setting priorities and valuing all your commitments. It’s about saying no to roles or obligations that no longer serve you.

Listen now to When She Leads, our podcast about women in business that highlights how women’s leadership helps individuals grow and organizations flourish.

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