10/25/2012 08:17 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Women Helping Women to Grow Their Impact

It's my belief -- and one of Watermark's core philosophies -- that the most effective way to grow the number of women leaders is through a pay it forward culture of women helping other women. In the last few years, there's been a lot of attention around mentoring and sponsorship for women, which is an exceptional way for women to support peers and up-and-comers to reach positions of prominence.

However, not everyone has the opportunity to develop those kinds of relationships with top-tier business leaders. One of the ways we contribute to the pay it forward culture is by providing access to the experiences and advice of Watermark members who have achieved success at the highest levels, creating a pool of ideas and information other women can draw from to augment their own career growth.

Watermark is full of just such women -- open, collaborative and high-achieving leaders who want other women to succeed just as they have. In this article, I profile two Silicon Valley powerhouses who have truly made their mark on the business landscape, who are willing to share with us exactly how they reached the top:

Erna Arnesen
Most Recently VP of Global & Strategic Services Partners at Cisco

When discussing how to become a high achiever in the high tech industry, it's important to start by defining success. To me, it isn't the number of figures in your salary or if your job title starts with a "C". Rather, I feel most successful when I can visibly see and feel the impact I've had in my company, in my field, on my peers, and in managing my teams. My goal has always been to realize my full potential and make my mark on the business landscape.

There are some specific career attributes that helped me advance, which are applicable to everyone but which I believe are especially necessary for women to stay motivated and energized at work:

  1. Enthusiasm is the number one factor -- a simple concept that cannot be underestimated. It generates the energy to really go at it, go for it and go and get it. Showing initiative and being positive translates into the quality of work you produce and the quality of the work relationships you build.
  2. A very strong work ethic is necessary to drive achievement. For women in particular, it's important to not only work hard, but to work smart, maximizing your efficiency through processes and structure. Good things happen when people invest themselves in what they're doing. However, it's clearly not the only thing to focus on because hard work alone won't get you where you want to go.
  3. Pick an area of specialization where you can contribute and stand out. Understand your strengths and focus on them early in your career. I chose to hone in on alliances and channels of distribution, helping hardware, software and services companies develop their sales and channel models. That decision served me very well because I've become very knowledgeable and expert in that area, and have continued to contribute strongly in that area as a result.
  4. Strong management and leadership skills are a must. Being able and willing to grab the ball and be a leader means taking responsibility and accepting the risks associated with that. And being willing to give others the credit is sometimes difficult but always the right thing to do.
  5. Be flexible and nimble when it comes to your position. For me, that meant going deep in one discipline and being willing to change my job. I haven't been at any company for more than six years; in a few instances I achieved the mission I set out to do in just a couple of years. I had to move on to another opportunity in order to continue to contribute meaningfully and advance my career. Don't get too locked into the way you perceive yourself or pigeonhole yourself, saying "I'm an engineer, so I can't be a good at something else." Look at yourself holistically!

Luanne Tierney
VP of Global Partner Marketing at Juniper Networks

Spotting trends. Mentoring. Embracing failure. "Firing" yourself. If you asked what has guided me in my career, I'd have to say that these four "mindsets" have been at the heart of my success as a leader.

Spotting Trends.
I'm convinced that what helps leaders succeed is the ability to sense what's next, what's hot, what's going to up-end a market or establish new business opportunities. It's that kind of sixth sense that keeps me on my toes, always looking, asking questions, piecing together the dots and then finding new ways to connect them to find the "what's new." Today, those dots lead to social media.

For companies of any size, harnessing social media can be an affordable part of a marketing strategy to get your brand and product in front of audiences.

Embracing Failure.
But spotting trends like social media isn't enough. You have to know how and when to apply those trend-spotting instincts. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I used to think, early in my career, that it was a mistake to fail. But with experience comes the wisdom that failing can be a good thing. I try to create a culture where employees are encouraged to take risks and bring new ideas to the table and realize that failing isn't necessarily bad. What matters is taking the knowledge from those failures and applying those insights to lead you to newer opportunities and challenges.

And that applies to my professional and personal life. Giving myself the option of failing has become a key factor in helping me succeed. I know as a triathlon athlete and a successful executive that it's critical to push -- to set aspirational goals, but it's equally important to say, "OK, you failed on this; move on, learn from it and don't make the same mistake twice."

Sharing those insights and knowledge with others has become the third pillar in my formula for success as a leader. Mentoring new talent and especially helping younger women advance in the business arena is something I believe is critical if we want to continue to grow as leaders. That's why I've committed to being on the board of Students Rising Above, an organization dedicated to helping disadvantaged students get a college education.

"You're Fired"!
Lastly, a few times a year, I go through a "firing myself" process to fine-tune my leadership skills. Imagine Donald Trump saying those dreaded words to you: "You're FIRED"! Then ask "why"? The exercise of firing yourself can be a great eye-opener that helps pinpoint your strengths, as well as your weaknesses. The result is a blueprint of your leadership traits showing you where you should focus your efforts to further develop your skills.

We all have strengths, capabilities and greatness inside of us. No matter where you are in your career, believing you can do whatever you set out to do is the ultimate pathway to success. So never, ever stop believing in yourself.