12/12/2014 12:49 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

The Rewards of Power (And Why Women Are Missing Out)

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"I didn't realize before I became editor-in-chief how much I was going to enjoy being in charge," says Joanna Coles, under whose leadership Cosmopolitan has become the world's most-read women's monthly magazine with 100 million readers in more than 100 countries. "I've been so exhilarated creating direction for this magazine, seeing my ideas of what a magazine for women should be and watching it take shape. Of course, I'm not doing this on my own. But I'm the person making the decisions. It's absolutely fabulous."

Although societal norms have shifted as more women assume positions of power, few stories extol their sense of fulfillment, intellectual excitement and sheer joy inherent in having the top job. Instead, the prevalent narrative is still one of sacrifice: the toll career ambitions take on one's personal life.

New research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that a profound misunderstanding prevents women from giving full rein to their aspirations. Too many women step off the fast track because they see an executive role delivering a hefty salary but little else that they value. The fact is, according to Women Want Five Things, rather than a limitation, power can enhance both their professional and personal lives.

Women do not understand that power can give them what they want. They perceive the burdens of leadership outweighing the benefits -- a perception shared by 60 percent of U.S. women and 65 percent of U.K. women. In fact, our data reveals, power is what allows women to thrive.

A closer look at what mid-career women (ages 35 to 50) want from their careers exposes their misunderstanding of power and illuminates the benefits it can bring. They want to:

Flourish. The majority of women without power -- 82 percent of women in the U.S. and 78 percent in the U.K. -- believe that an executive position would not allow them to flourish. In fact, 58 percent of women with power in the U.S. and 36 percent in the U.K. report having the ability to flourish.

Reach for meaning and purpose. The majority of women without power -- 74 percent in the U.S. and 72 percent in the UK -- expect that an executive position would not allow them to have a lasting impact in their profession, advance causes important to them, and be a role model for their family and community. In fact, more than a third of women with power -- 63 percent in the U.S. and 40 percent in the U.K. -- say their careers offer them that opportunity to reach for meaning and purpose.

Excel. Women want intellectual challenge in order to enhance their knowledge and become a recognized expert in their field. Thirty percent of women without power in the U.S. don't expect that possibility from an executive position. In fact, 87 percent of women with power in the U.S. report being able to excel.

Empower others and be empowered. The majority of women without power -- 86 percent in the U.S. and the U.K. -- believe that an executive position would not afford them the ability to empower others and be empowered: that is, have sponsors -- senior colleagues willing to take a bet on them and advocate for their next big opportunity - and build a network of protégés who expand their capabilities, extend their reach and burnish their brand. In fact, 61 percent of women with power in the U.S. and 35 percent in the U.K. enjoy the ability to empower others and be empowered.

Earn well. Women say it's important to them to attain financial security and financial independence, as well as to sustain a comfortable lifestyle for themselves, their children and their parents. Some 71 percent of women without power in the U.S. and 55 percent in the U.K. expect an executive position would allow them to earn well. In fact, only 37 percent of women with power in the U.S. and 24 percent in the U.K. report earning well.

When women perceive that an executive role will satisfy their value proposition, they reclaim their ambition for leadership. U.K. women who anticipate getting what they want are 4.3 times as likely (43 percent vs. 10 percent) to aspire to a position of power as those who do not anticipate fulfillment; for U.S. women, expectation of fulfillment impacts aspiration by nearly 3 times (34 percent vs. 12 percent). Our data shows that high-achieving women have the requisite skills and commitment to go for the top job. Many also have the desire.

But taking on the responsibilities, sustaining the pace, and fulfilling the requirements of a senior leadership role requires extraordinary support systems: trusted lieutenants and a deep bench of talent; powerful allies and extensive networks; reliable service providers; and coaches, mentors and, most particularly, sponsors willing to teach, protect and promote them as women navigate the corridors of power.

Without these career boosters, many talented women falter and their ambition seeps away. Despite blasting through performance targets, they steer away from stretch assignments or high-profile projects that might vault them into jobs whose demands they fear will be costly. Unfortunately -- for them and for their employer -- in too many cases, there's no role model or sponsor to change their mind.

"We have to truly understand how best to support women on the path to more senior roles," stated Cynthia Bowman, a leadership development executive at Bank of America (a sponsor of this research). Women make up more than 54 percent of Bank of America's workforce and their success is a priority for the company, she adds.

To ensure that talented women stay on track for leadership roles, companies must work to change women's perceptions of what powerful positions entail. They must provide role models who give voice to the substantial joys and rewards of leadership, thus inspiring more qualified women to stay connected through the difficult mid-career years. They must sustain women's ambition, both by meeting their needs as they progress toward leadership and by ensuring that leadership actually delivers on women's value proposition.

"Women are fiercely ambitious and are proven drivers of innovation across industries. Companies who commit to helping female talent realize their aspirations and better understand the opportunities that power can bring will see more of them pursuing top roles, and benefit from their leadership." said Valerie Grillo, Chief Diversity Officer, American Express (lead sponsor of this research).

In short, when women can expect an executive role to fulfill their value proposition, they both reclaim and sustain their ambition, and enjoy the perquisites of success. That kind of satisfaction, as Joanna Coles discovered, is powerful stuff.