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In Business, It's All About Survival of the Resilient

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Resilience can be measured by how high you bounce when you hit bottom, and a lot of women have had their resilience tested over the last two years. In the U.S. financial services sector alone, women made up three-quarters of the layoffs. As a result, many had to reinvent themselves and change careers or try their hands at something new. If you'll forgive me for finding a silver lining in the dark cloud of joblessness, it's this: The resilience we're learning in our professional lives right now may be the precise quality that will be most in demand by businesses in the years to come.

At least that's what we found in a survey of 500 C-level executives in 20 countries whom we asked to assess the most valuable qualities and skills and tell us which employees had them. Two-thirds of the executives said resilience will be a big part of deciding who to keep and who to fire, and a small margin judged women more resilient than men.

This could be good news for women building professional careers, but if it means more women get hired, it could be even better news for businesses and the global economy. There's plenty of evidence that companies simply perform better with more women and minorities on board, and we're going to need high-performance companies to lead us out of this recession. Compared with their male counterparts, female managers tend to be more flexible, focus more on long-term goals and manage with a tad more caution. Diverse perspectives lead to better problem solving, according to an article by two economists in the Journal of Economic Theory last year. All this should sound good to companies after what we've just been through.

There are those who, looking back, wonder whether the financial decisions made over the last decade might have been any different if more women were involved. Perhaps. Yet 60 percent of the executives we surveyed said they aren't grooming any more women for senior management roles this year than they did last year. The C-Suite around the world remains largely a male bastion.

Here's a familiar statistic: Women make up half the U.S. workforce, yet only 3 percent of corporate CEOs are women. Still, we're making real strides in getting closer to the top if you look at the number of women on executive committees, the top team reporting to the CEO. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. companies have at least one woman among these top executives, compared with 21 percent in Europe and 18 percent in Asia. Unfortunately, Paris-based consulting firm 20-first says that even these few women are mostly there in staff roles.

At Accenture, where I work, we have three women on the board of directors and five women on the executive leadership team, and we employ 60,000 women around the world. I see the benefits of diversity in business every day. Facing economic uncertainty and fierce competition, diverse organizations that instill resilience in their future leaders have a clear advantage. The question isn't why aren't more women at the top, but how fast can we tap into and train a talent pool that already has the leadership skills we need?

Resilience can be taught, so let's teach it. The best companies already do. Our research found that despite tight budgets, very few companies have cut training for women and minorities, and 22 percent put more resources into structured mentoring last year.

I'm a big believer in mentoring, in helping people learn from those who know the ropes. Mentors -- male and female -- have made a big difference in my career, and I've gained insights from nearly everyone I've mentored. Leadership skills increase with experience, regardless of gender, and three-fourths of those we polled look to their senior staff to serve as role models in terms of confidence, productivity and teamwork for more-junior staffers.

Seasoned professional women have faced adversity and learned to roll with the punches. They've kept teams focused and engaged, dealt with rejection, transformed unhappy customers into long-term relationships, and encountered events that looked like the end of the line but discovered they were just an arc to something better -- or at least something different. All this, plus balancing home and work, teaches you how to be flexible, how to adapt, how to turn challenges into opportunities, and how to learn lessons everywhere -- if only you know to look for them.

My lesson in flexibility came with my first job out of college. Hired to do a sales role, I was asked by my boss to help the company move offices instead. I could have quit, but I saw this as an opportunity and adapted. I spent the next year working with architects, lawyers, electricians and every departmental head -- people I never would have met from behind a desk. The move went well. "Okay," my boss said, "we've seen the job you can do with no experience. Now pick the job you want to learn, and it's yours."

That's my advice to those I mentor today: Pick the job you want to do, but be flexible and seize opportunities even if they're not what you envisioned. They rarely are. Be gracious. Ask questions, lots of them and all the time. Take risks. Every change requires it, and you won't know what you can do until you try.

Work is all about network, so build as diverse a network of mentors as you can. A "personal board of directors" lets you test ideas and teaches you skills and strategies that help you adapt and grow.

Learn resilience, because people and businesses that can adapt swiftly are most likely to not only survive, but thrive. And women, so resilient in the face of change, are the "mothers of invention."

Roxanne Taylor is the Chief Marketing & Communications Officer at Accenture. The survey, "Women Leaders and Resilience: Perspectives from the C-Suite," will be released on March 5, in celebration of International Women's Day.