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IWD 2014: Building Career Capital

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John Minchillo/Invision/AP
John Minchillo/Invision/AP

The first National Women's Day was observed in the United States on February 28, 1909 to honor the garment workers' strike, which had protested unsatisfactory working conditions in factories. As of almost 40 years ago in 1975, the United Nations began celebrating International Women's Day on March 8th. At its inception, the intent was twofold: to commemorate and celebrate the incredible achievements of women worldwide as well as to highlight the requisite changes that still need to be realized in order for future generations to finally achieve gender equality.

I celebrated International Women's Day events last week by speaking on Accenture's International Women's Day panel called, "Knowing and Growing Your Career Capital." Career capital refers to a focus on how women navigate their career paths and the different ways in which women and men approach self-promotion. The panel was moderated by Nellie Borrero, Managing Director of Global Inclusion and Diversity at Accenture and the panelists included Anne Doyle, one of the first women to serve as a television sports anchor and gain access to professional sports locker rooms and author of Powering Up!: How America's Women Achievers Become Leaders, Linda Singh, Managing Director of Health and Public Service at Accenture, as well as a General in the U.S. army, and Sheree Stomberg, Managing Director of Citigroup.

This accomplished group of fellow panelists discussed myriad topics ranging from how they've honed their respective career capital to mantras that have guided their careers at both high points and low points in their professional development. However, three themes emerged throughout the day that grabbed my attention. The first was the notion that a career setback can turn into ammunition for propelling your career further.

When overlooked for a promotion, Sheree took pause and parlayed her frustration into a constructive re-evaulation of her approach to her career path. She realized that her conception of bragging was not bragging in a man's world; it was just talking normally. As a result, she was more vocal about her accomplishments, which ultimately helped her get promoted to the leadership role she currently holds at Citibank. In other words, resilience is key. And Sheree experienced something that has been echoed in the research. In fact, a 2010 Accenture survey finds that more than two-thirds of the executives believe resilience was "very to extremely important" to their work. The majority also rated women leaders as having more of this attribute than men. This aspect of career capital is one that is integral to build early on. In fact, a 2008 Girl Scout Research Institute study found that resilience in the face of adversity was an imperative in predicting a girl's leadership success.

The second theme that emerged stressed not just the important of diversity, but the benefits of openness in an organization. Linda Singh, who has an impressive dual career of working for Accenture and simultaneously serving as the General of the Maryland Army National Guard, told the incredible story of her ascent to power and how valuing diversity within her unit helps encourage more seamless collaboration and set aside cultural differences. She argued that this lesson is as relevant to serving in Afghanistan as it is to serving on the board of a company.

The last theme relates deeply to the notion of women's leadership styles. Anne Doyle, a pioneer in her field of sports journalism, spoke about the concept of "Womaninity." She asserted that the global marketplace does not require androgyny. Quite the opposite; she argued that we have to shed the notion that women need to lead like men in order to be effective. Anne spoke to the utility of women's soft skills, corroborating my findings from The Athena Doctrine, which shows that competencies like independence, aggression, and pride are only weakly correlated with the ideal modern leader, while skills like patience, empathy and flexibility are strongly associated with ideal leadership. Her other advice that resonated with the audience was the admonition to "never eliminate yourself." In other words, women need to continue to put themselves forward and not self-select out of opportunities for advancement.

I was also able to speak to this theme in my own research for The Athena Doctrine, which reveals that we are on the cusp of a feminine age of leadership in which transparency and collaboration have new currency (finally!). The leader that has what it takes to thrive in this socially inter-dependent era is a far cry from the command-and-control myth of the past. In fact, in our global survey of 64,000 people in 13 countries, we found that the two traits that correlate least with perceived effective leadership were aggression and pride. Conversely, skills such as empathy, collaboration and communication correlated most highly.

In this time of incredible change, we are seeing new interpretations of career capital in the global marketplace. Resilience. Openness. Empathy. Engagement. Collaboration. The ideal modern leader should cultivate these skills and leverage them. Reframing our criteria of successful leaders and recognizing this type of capital yields tangible business outcomes -- regardless of whether they are employed by a man or woman -- will be a major source of competitive advantage for firms in the twenty-first century.

To view the panel in full, click here for more inspired discussion about overcoming unconscious biases, the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness and the traits of ideal modern leaders.