Careers

9 top female executives share the best career advice their mothers gave them

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Many of the women in the upper tiers of business and finance, executives who run billion-dollar companies and amass giant professional networks, attribute the best career and leadership advice they've gotten to their mothers.

Only 4 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, but a growing body of research pointing to women's economic role and conversations sparked by executives like Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg are focusing the public attention's on bridging that historic gender divide.

Part of that conversation is crediting the many mothers of the world who inspired daughters that seek success. Here, nine highly-successful female executives share the career advice their mothers gave them:

1. Make hard work your trademark

Sue Siegel, CEO of GE Ventures, says that the best advice her mom gave her was to develop a strong work ethic.

"In 1965, my mom was the first woman to earn a graduate degree from the Yale School of Forestry," Siegel tells CNBC. "She's the embodiment of paving your own path, being focused and having a strong work ethic."

Sue Siegel CEO, GE Ventures & healthymagination
Sue Siegel CEO, GE Ventures & healthymagination

"I've learned from her that when you combine these forces, anything is possible."

2. Build good habits early

Peggy Johnson, EVP of business development at Microsoft, says her mother taught her the importance of discipline at a young age.

"I can still hear my mom's voice echoing through the house, reminding me and my siblings to 'Make your beds!'" Johnson recalls.

"It seems like such a small thing," she says, "but when you're one of 15 brothers and sisters like me, those small reminders about the importance of discipline and order are critical."

Peggy Johnson, Microsoft EVP of business development
Peggy Johnson, Microsoft EVP of business development

"I still reflect back on that lesson with my team at Microsoft – what are the little moments of discipline that need happen each day to help us stay on track and achieve success as a team?"

3. You can achieve anything a man can

Growing up, Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte U.S., had five brothers. The experience of how her mother raised her helped shape her leadership skills.

"My mom always told me and my sisters, 'You can do anything the boys can do. After all, you're growing up right alongside five of them.'"

"We were sent outside to our backyard to play sports together all the time — no boy and girl differentiation," the CEO says, "just two teams playing. By doing that, she taught us to be tough and to never give up."

ENGELBERT DELOITTE
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"It's important that we always remind each other that we're equals," she says.

4. Communication is key 

Yvette Butler, president of Capital One Investing, grew up watching her grandmother manage multiple family businesses, including a farm, a convenience store and an auto repair shop.

"The best advice she ever gave me was 'Be a clear communicator,'" Butler says.

"She was very direct and incredibly insightful – she instinctively understood what personalities would best work together, and which employee was best suited in each position," she says.

Yvette Butler, president of Capital One Investing
Yvette Butler, president of Capital One Investing

"I still incorporate my grandmother's very effective communications style into my management approach," the executive adds.

5. Turn your current job into the one you want

Amazon executive Simoina Vasen, who leads the company's Prime Now division, says her mother told her to not be afraid to ask for what you want.

"[My mom] always told me that I could create my own career path and that it didn't need to fit neatly into a box," Vasen says.

"In several of my roles at Amazon, I've had the opportunity to write my own job description and tell management, 'This is what I want to do. Can you create a role like this for me?'" the executive says.

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"Being empowered to create my own roles rather than trying to fit a job description has allowed me to build a unique career path that is challenging and satisfying."

6. Work around the problems you'll face

BNP Paribas executive Sadia Halim, who heads the company's corporate and investment banking Americas innovation division, says her mom taught her the importance of working around obstacles.

"Don't just focus on the problem, try to find solutions," Halim recalls her mother telling her.

The finance executive regularly uses that advice on the job.

"I often encounter situations that can be resolved if I take the time to think about an alternative way to approach the problem," she says.

7. Speak up

For Jamie Domenici, VP of small and medium-sized business marketing at Salesforce, the best advice her mother gave her was to speak louder.

"The best career advice that I got came from my mother," Domenic tells CNBC. "She works for the City of San Mateo, managing their recycling programs, which is a mostly male-dominated profession."

Jamie Domenici, VP of small and medium-sized marketing at Salesforce
Jamie Domenici, VP of small and medium-sized marketing at Salesforce

"Early in my career she told me that as a woman, I have to do more to make sure that I have a seat at the table," she says.

"Although women have come a long, long way in the workplace, sometimes we need to raise our hands a little higher, speak a little louder and push ourselves outside of our comfort zones."

8. Don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves

Sandhya Rao, senior director of product Management at Honeywell, says her mom taught her to do whatever it takes — and provided the example.

"My mom worked throughout my childhood," Rao says, "first as a computer programmer, then as an entrepreneur, and then as a customer service provider. She only retired when she was 70 years old, so over the years, her actions have spoken to me even more so than her words.

"She showed me that hard work really does pay off, that no job is too menial if it means getting to the larger goal faster," she says. "And that as life aspirations evolve, don't be afraid to make career changes as needed."

Sandhya Rao, senior director of product management at Honeywell
Sandhya Rao, senior director of product management at Honeywell

"Sometimes I have had to put in the hours, thinking and hard work to get the job done. Other times I have had to roll up my sleeves and get into the weeds to accomplish the end goal," she says.

9. Be optimistic about your future

"My mom is a woman of amazing faith who taught me the power of optimism," says Susan Peters, SVP of human resources at GE. "She looked at everything with a positive lens, and never said a bad word about anyone, ever."

Susan Peters, SVP of human resources at GE
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Susan Peters, SVP of human resources at GE

Peters says that her mom taught her the importance of maintaining a bright outlook, even through challenges.

"When you combine that optimism with her grit and determination," she says, "you get my mom, who will be 91 in July. I couldn't ask for a better role model."