05/20/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Tough Love: The Choices Successful Women Need to Make

In the 20 years or so that I have been championing gender diversity and "glass ceiling" issues, the sad fact is that the rate of progress for the advancement of women is woefully disappointing, particularly in light of the "noise" around the issue -- and certainly given the now well-publicized data that companies with more balanced leadership teams significantly outperform those which lack them.

I think we need to focus on two key areas. One is the still-present "silent killer of diversity" -- unconscious bias -- which is largely environmental. But the bigger issue is that of how women are "stepping up," or leaning in as Sheryl Sandberg would say.

Women need to deal with real challenges in the workplace, but they also have to grapple with their own personal issues and perspectives -- and yes, even spirituality -- some of which may need to be refocused and reconsidered as a career progresses. I discuss my thoughts below. Rather intentionally, I'm offering a little "tough love."

Work-life balance is not the point

One of the most common catchphrases in the business world is "work-life balance," something almost certainly directed more at women than men, given the major effect having children can have on a woman's career. But work-life is a false distinction. Work is a key part of life, not something somehow separate from it. The phrase almost always makes it seem as if "life" were something that intrudes on and hinders a career. The phrase makes "life" seem a troublesome thing.

You can't have it all

Another misguided premise concerns the issue of whether women can have it all. What does "having it all" really mean? A princess such as Kate Middleton or an actress at the top of her career such as Angelina Jolie may appear to have it all, but it's actually a common catchphrase that turns out to be hollow, absurd even. The key is to understand what you really want in the various areas of your life and at the various stages, strive to achieve those goals. It helps to write them down, and to be honest about what you come up with.

The right partner can make a big difference

Which brings us to parenthood. I have the greatest regard for people who can successfully raise children and maintain a thriving career. Each woman approaches this process of balance in her own way. Some will go all in as mothers and keep a bit of freelance work or consulting on the side; others will find a way to work full time and carve out a parenting role that works for them. Again, the key to achieving a life balance is simple: you must understand what you really want.

Furthermore, women do themselves a terrible disservice when they attempt to singlehandedly take on the role of being a parent when there is a father in the picture. Working moms can, and should, rebrand themselves as working parents. We tend to forget that men are just as concerned about family time and children as women. Allow them to share the load.

Make sure you have somebody in your corner to support you.

Get over the impostor syndrome

Once you do begin to rise within a company, avoid the "imposter syndrome." Many of us have moments when we feel we are really challenging our abilities and knowledge; some of us at times even feel out of our depth, or that our superiors will somehow discover we're not qualified for a role or an assignment or that we don't have everything figured out. Men tend to power through these moments faster than women. Here's a truth: feeling uncomfortable and insecure is the natural result of stretching yourself, of pushing your limits. If you never get that feeling, you are not trying hard enough. And believe me, your boss has had that feeling at some point in his or her career, likely more than once.

Seek a male sponsor

One last point. Take responsibility for your own destiny by seeking out a sponsor. Career coaches talk at you, mentors talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you to others both in and out of the company.

Seek a male sponsor if you can. Why male? Unconscious biases still exist, and many men, who make the bulk of hiring decisions, will have an image of who they want in the role. In male-dominated environments the image often reflects the incumbent, typically a male. Cultivating a sponsorship relationship with a male leader will help him to see things differently, to gain a new perspective. It will take time to find the right sponsor and, once you've done so, to develop the relationship in such a manner than you can leverage it for your benefit. Look at it as a key element and driver of your career. And remember: your career isn't separate from life. It's part of it, but it shouldn't be all of it. Successfully balancing our lives is the biggest challenge for all of us; there is no one size fits all, there is no simple plan for us to follow. We just need to be honest about what is important to us at this point in time and be confident to go with it.