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Failing to the Top: The Surest Path for Today’s Female Executives

Women in top leadership positions remaining astonishingly small, even today, years after I sat in the C-suite of two major advertising agencies. Today, I’m often asked what’s holding women back? Why after years in the workplace, are women still so seldom found in the corner office?

I believe women assume success is about the performance, about working harder and harder, and achieving good and measurable results.

Hard work is important, of course, but it is never the tiebreaker when management is looking for a candidate to promote. Everyone does good work. What we in management talk about in those meetings — where the work itself gets about a two minute review — is your interior capacity, your tolerance for risk, your energy, your intensity, your reactions and emotional hot buttons. Obviously we deciders don’t know a lot about all these inner qualities, so we guess.

Doesn’t that scare you a bit? People taking the measure of you without really knowing you? There’s only one solution: You have to know the full measure of yourself and then teach them the size of you.

The question is, how do you get to know who you are, especially as the people at the top are looking for these less-tangible qualities they associate with leadership?

One sure way to discover the “stranger within,” that part of you that comes to the fore when challenges or trouble hit, is to court that kind of trouble and let it be your teacher.

In my first years as a pioneering woman trying to master the art of advertising; the all-powerful clients, the strange creative, the precise media teams. I was a star performer at J. Walter Thompson. I really aced the work: getting the strategy right, the ads sold, the messages delivered widely. Failure was not on my dance card. I was promoted six times in five years as my company bio boasted.

Then I hit a wall.

I was hired to be the CEO of a broken smaller ad agency. The problems, which woke me at 4 a.m. every morning, were gut wrenching: huge debt, druggies and drinkers in key positions, clients who had lost faith. This was not about my work performance. This was about my interior tensile strength. As things worsened, I had to admit I couldn’t do it. I was so swamped by fear. When another job offer came my way, I was faint with relief. Ready to flee the scene, I happened to read an anonymous review from the agency teams. They called me fearless! The fact that they believed in me more than I believed in myself actually gave me the courage to truly examine of what I was made, beyond my work performance and my resume. It was time to learn who I was from the inside out.

"Another target for watering down is the amount of money the reform bill would require firms to pay upfront as part of a bailout fund for too-big-to-fail firms that might need financial help." -Credit, Writer

If you are calmly sitting at work without any failures to report, you are probably hiding behind your good work, avoiding all these calls to find out who you are, beyond and beneath your work performance. You want to admire your successes, of course, but understand that failing is your most important teacher. You can’t succeed without it.

Put yourself in the way of trouble, sign up to take on a project that might be a loser. Volunteer to do a training course (so you’ll learn what you know). Agree to move to a new country or to an unknown department. Don’t avoid bullies — try to take them head on. Gather up your courage and do something to get known to the people at the top. If you’ve been passed by in a promotion, get the real reason. Do not sit on your pain and resentment. Agree to be the first presenter in a tough meeting. Test your strength to be generous in firing someone well. Believe me, it can be done.

Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report
Women And Business - A CNBC Special Report

Suppose you fail? Well, it’s only practice. Get up and try again. It’s not how far you fall it’s how fast you recover, say the wise ones. What will all these dangerous sounding ventures do for you? They will teach you via one awkward, trying moment at a time, exactly who you are beneath that proper resume and beyond your carefully acquired performance skills.

As I resolved to stay the course, still an uneasy, ill-fitting CEO, rather than run to an easier, safer job, I practiced daily on our biggest account, Procter & Gamble, hot to fail by trying for higher, unlikely goals. Our team won a big victory, after many blunders of course, and it set off a rush of other successes. When I left, I received a job offer from WPP to run Ogilvy, a really grand scale opportunity to fail, as Ogilvy was in a deep slough of losing profits and clients, and gloom. Knowing myself far better now, I was greatly aided by understanding why I wanted this job. It was not to prove I could make it in the big time, it was to test myself, to try to use all that I had learned, to once again risk failing.

Go toward the challenges; look for as much trouble as you can handle—because it’s only practice and because this is where you learn the most priceless thing of all—who you are. As adversity teaches and tests you, you develop a core, deep understanding of what you have to offer, and what you want from work.

I know it’s easier to talk about searching for challenges than it is to do, given the pace, the anxiety, the stress of work today. That’s why I spend so much time and energy teaching women the systems I used to uncover the self–knowledge that helps them dare that steep learning curve of seeking failure. I’m betting that every woman can learn to take charge of her work life in any arena she finds herself.

Charlotte Beers is the former CEO and Chairman of Ogilvy, former Chairman of J. Walter Thomson, and author of the upcoming book, "I’d Rather Be In Charge" (Vanguard; February 2012)