10/06/2006 03:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Afternoon, Day 2: Lift as you Rise
My first panel today includes three top women and their protégés. (There are no speeches this year; no lectures to the populace, just frank and enlightening discussion). It's a "lift as you rise" mentality--something that is so necessary to the future of women's leadership. It's inspiring to have these young women join their mentors on stage after the introductions--the event is immediately intergenerational and quite powerful.

For so long women had to be "man enough" to get to top positions. There was no way you'd leave the door ajar to give up-and-comers an opening. Now, women are more secure in their leadership qualities, they're embracing their collaborative nature, and are more willing to foster the leadership of young women.

In this group, we heard from
--Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman, President, Product Development, Genentech
--Dawn Hudson, President and CEO Pepsi Cola North America
--Judy McGrath, Chairman and CEO, MTV Networks
--Mellody Hobson, President of Ariel Capital Management, moderated

I missed it yesterday, but later someone told me that Judy McGrath has been dubbed "a teenager in a woman's body"--a description that's quite fitting. Judy McGrath's energy and up-to-dateness, her candor and delight are contagious. McGrath bravely left a career at Condé Nast to take on MTV in the early days when the network was a bust. Everyone told her not to do it, but with her help, it's become a boom.

That story seems to be a trend with many of these leaders: they took risks that in retrospect look like no-brainers, but at the time were really, really edgy.

The very impressive Genentech leaders admitted to issues around ambition. Susan admitted to just "not being good at it." Not surprising really, considering ambition in men is an expectation and a virtue. Successful women often have to spin their ambition so that they don't appear too unladylike. This underscores what we have learned at The White House Project about the ambivalence that most women experience about stepping up, and the consequent necessity of encouraging each other.

But to have ambition you've got to know what you want to do, and most the panelists agreed on something I think every young woman should know: you don't start out knowing what you'll do.

From the "protégés" we hear that it's not hard for this generation to get in and work part way up, but it's still pretty complicated if you want to reach the top. The corporate culture that gets you to the top, just may not keep you there.

The good news is that young women leaders have "less reverence for the rules." We big girls can learn from watching them.

As was said about the women's movement itself, I'd say of the corporate leadership world: the work is hard, but the company's good.