Closing The Gap

The woman who helped define Sheryl Sandberg’s career reveals the key to making it to the top

Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In her 2013 book "Lean In," Sheryl Sandberg describes her career as less of a ladder and more of a jungle gym.

A "jungle gym scramble," she writes, better accounts for the many detours, barriers and, indeed, joys she experienced on her way to become Facebook's chief operating officer.

It's a metaphor she borrowed from prominent journalist Pattie Sellers — to whom she gives credit in the book — and one to which many of us can relate.

Sellers understands careers. She learnt from the routes taken by some of the world's most preeminent powers, from Warren Buffett to Melinda Gates, as Fortune magazine's former assistant managing editor.

Speaking to CNBC Make It at YPO Edge in Singapore, she said that a jungle gym is a fitting description of the career paths of many of those successful leaders. And there's one skill that has enabled them to handle that: Agility.

Pattie Sellers speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Dinner New York City
Jemal Countess | Getty

"Agility is the most important personal characteristic you can have to succeed in this fast-changing environment," said Sellers, who is now co-founder and partner at SellersEaston Media.

"If you plan your career too much, you're going to come up against walls. You have to be agile."

Sellers said that is especially true for women, who continue to face significant hurdles and are more likely to face a range of work and family duties on their journey to the top.

"Women define power differently to men. They define it horizontally and across various areas of life, whereas men are more vertical and concerned with getting to the top," Sellers noted.

"The most successful women have all viewed their careers as jungle gyms."

However, she added that a lot more has to be done to ensure there is a space for women when they do get to the top.

Currently, just over 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. She encouraged more powerful women to speak out, as Sandberg has done, to tell the story of their journeys.

"Sheryl Sandberg's tenet is that women don't lean in enough to get to the top, and that continues to endure," said Sellers, who co-founded Fortune's Most Powerful Women list, an annual ranking of the 50 most influential women in business.

"People need to tell their stories. Passing that on to the next generation is one of the most important things you can do."

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