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Kim Stephens, Co-author, Your Journey to Executive: Insights from IBM Women Executives; Diversity and Inclusion, IBM

Kim Stephens, Co-author, Your Journey to Executive: Insights from IBM Women Executives; Diversity and Inclusion, IBM

By Kim Stephens

It is no longer enough to recognize the value of women in the workplace, or even to encourage growth. To meet business objectives in the future, organizations of all sizes need to create an environment where women can thrive and build careers, where they have opportunities to stretch their skills and take on visible roles, and where they are encouraged to integrate work and life in a way that works for them.

We need to reach out to women early or mid-career to learn more about potential inhibitors and career development needs and desires. This is how we ensure we build a diverse leadership pipeline for the future.

IBM recently conducted the 2012-2013 Advancing Women at IBM Executive Research Study, with more than 600 IBM executives from around the world to find out more about their career journeys. In the interview portion of the study we included questions on topics such as Work/Life Integration, Building Professional Eminence, and Building a High Performance Culture. By gleaning this information from our current women executives, we felt we could give our future women leaders invaluable insight into what it takes to have a successful career.

Based on over 279 pages of interview data, we brought together the knowledge gathered – challenges, obstacles and successes – into the study paper Your Journey to Executive: Insights from IBM Women Executives.

Three themes emerged from the study: 1) Be visible; 2) Plan your career; and 3) Integrate work and life.

Be visible. 95 percent of executive women who participated in the study felt that consistent high performance was the most important factor in their advancement within IBM. But the women also made it clear that this was not enough. Women have to be visible and work on projects that matter to the business and its clients. They have to be willing to take on critical, visible roles that stretch them, develop them and provide an opportunity to demonstrate competence and leadership. Women need to seek out strategic positions, not just operational roles. They need to have a chance to step out of their comfort zones, stretch their skills and have an opportunity to be visible. And visibility is key to promotion. Our participants also emphasized the need for women to develop a strong network within the company who knows their abilities and skills and who are willing to make them visible to their peers, decision makers and the leadership team. Women must also know how to promote themselves both internally and externally.

Plan your career. Women need to take control and plan their careers, having proactive career discussions with their managers and actively seeking out the roles they want rather than waiting for the jobs to come to them. But most of all, women need to understand that they need a strong team of supporters that are acquainted with their work and can give them honest feedback on career decisions. Within IBM we refer to this as your “career advisory team,” and it can consist of your former managers, mentors, advocates, coaches or whomever you think will help you be successful in your career. Having a supportive environment for women with advocates and mentors is critical. Everyone should have a mentor, but advocates must be earned. So women must make sure they are looking for opportunities to prove their abilities and skills in a highly-visible manner to senior executives in the company. According to the study, 93% of the executive women said they had an advocate.

Integrate work and life. A large number of executive women in the study stated that difficulty integrating work and personal/family life is a significant obstacle to women’s progress to the executive level. This can be difficult in a global 24×7 environment. But based on the information gathered in the interviews, many of our executive women have learned to manage the obstacles in front of them. Many of the women in their interviews cited the importance of a flexible work environment. As one executive said, “Lots of work can be done outside the 8 to 5 timeframe.” Women need to know what flexibility options are available to them and understand how to balance these options with the needs of the business. They can also learn a great deal from the women that have preceded them. This is why a supportive environment with other women sharing their successes and challenges is so important.

As we strive to bring more women into leadership roles, we cannot afford to neglect the pipeline of women waiting to break into executive roles. How we nurture these women in the early and middle of their careers will determine the strength of our leadership in the future. That is smarter career development.

For more on the IBM Advancing Women Research Study, read the study paper, Your Journey to Executive. The study paper takes a very thorough look at each of these themes and incorporates the ideas expressed in the interviews with the executives. And although the study was focused on women, the insights shared are relevant to men, as well.


Kim Stephens is the communications lead for the Advancing Women at IBM Research Study and is the co-author of the study paper. She works in Program Design and Development, IBM Diversity and Inclusion. In her more than 15 years with IBM, Kim has worked as a developer, accessibility advocate, technical writer, senior editor and senior communications manager.

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I partly agree with Axel Zein. The advice given here are useful, and it is great it is mentioned that all genders can take advantage of them. My problem with all this starts at the male reader’s viewpoint. Do men (not one or two – as a trend)read this study at all? If yes, how do they read it – as advice they can use, or as advice to women how they can improve? I feel it is the latter. In the work-family balance part of the study, the same old story returns: it is the responsibility of the woman, it is she who must seek out for help in organisation. What is more, men appear here as “not daring” to stand up from their desks at four pm to fetch the kids home. This is just not the trend, at least not in my country (Hungary). It is considered as women’s task, and as long as studies keep suggesting this, no change will be implemented. My suggestion would be to stop giving advice solely to women how they should act (which suggests at the same time that men do it right by default), and start a real “Equal Leadership” discussion where leadership would finally be considered genderfree. This is where Axel Zein is right. Where he is not right: women do not need yet another good advice, thank you very much.

Posted by: Rita Tyukodine Lehoczky
October 2, 2013
1:07 pm

The work-life balance reality is that corporations expect a dedication to work that really means our society supports one career and one job, not 2-career families. It’s great to have a pipeline and support women in what are really women-only challenges, but the path to executive is a family issue. This article does a great job of describing the problem:

Posted by: Monica Luke
September 11, 2013
5:50 am

Well put across thoughts and they are strategic points. Certainly these points don’t take away the importance of individual competency, leadership skills and core skills.
I must also add that many men need to understand these skills and apply to be successful.
Last point, whatever said and done, Work life balance continues to be a challenge where prioritizing one over other would not be favorable. Yet for a skilled Woman, its only a matter of time to break any ceiling above.

Posted by: Abha
September 9, 2013
11:21 pm

Great points to work on to advance one’s career. We also need systems in place that encourage and reward people who enable positive changes to happen. Organization also needs to play its part and complement the individuals efforts.

Posted by: Ramya
September 9, 2013
9:22 am

Thanks for sharing. I had the opportunity to be part of the BTL program IBM did a few years ago. Programs like this if we had more follow up on the class individuals go a long way. I am executive member of an industry group that has the focus of building women pipeline in the industry. Have gotten some of our newer IBMers to the Media and Telecom industry to attend this leadership conference as part of our education. We will be using this as an OI and Closing opportunity as well. Would highly recommend finding associations that are advance your eminence, network, as well as providing support and motivation to excel. The other thing we All need to do is mentor down and up! Finding a lot of straight talk and guidance needed for the 22-26 group and reset and straight talk for the 50 plus many who are re entering the workforce or now have the flexibility to really excel “lean in.”

Posted by: Marva Bailer
September 7, 2013
3:08 pm

Dear career oriented women: if you want to become good leaders, please do not follow the advise given. Here is why and what I suggest you should do instead:

Posted by: Axel Zein
September 7, 2013
1:15 pm

I wonder if there is anything different here for Women than for Persons with Disabilities? Seems we could easily replace the word Women with the phrase ‘Persons with Disabilities” and it would make a lot of sense. They are the largest Diversity and Inclusion group after Women. Persons with Disabilities need to Be Visible, Plan their Career, and Integrate Work and Life too, correct?

Posted by: Phill Jenkins
September 6, 2013
6:00 pm

Kim and team great peice of work and the publish timing is perfect – in the season of fall plan! I’m proud of IBM’s leadership for making the investment to communicate –diversity strategies as well as the type of thinking needed to succeed.

Posted by: Sharon Fortune Bowden
September 6, 2013
3:57 pm

Thank you so much Kim for sharing your thoughts. I am overwhelmed by IBM’s interest in promoting Women Leaders.

Posted by: Jyotsna
September 6, 2013
5:02 am

Kim, felt good reading your post. There is no longer a glass ceiling…and women have learnt or are learning to overcome the obstables.

We are multi-managers, multi-taskers, natural trouble-shooters and great managers. With a bit of help and equal opportunities presented we can make it big.

Posted by: Geeta Philip
September 5, 2013
3:29 pm

Kim, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The principles you have outlined (be visible, plan your career, integrate work and life) applies universally to both women and men. Every one in our organization can adopt these basic principles and grow.

Posted by: Soma
September 5, 2013
1:16 pm

Thanks for bringing this forward on behalf of the IBM team. In Canada we have a GBS Women’s Initiative and this will be extremely helpful as we bring information to the Women in our organization.

Posted by: Deenah Patel
September 4, 2013
3:16 am

In order to become a good leaders women (and men) must learn how to put a great team together, how to make their team more productive, how to shape a common vision while creating a high performance culture. Strangely none of these topics is even touched in your article. But I am sure these topics matter at IBM, as they do for every other company. For women and men alike, being a manager should be defined mostly by their abilily to perform the tasks mentioned above. I know we are not born with these abilities (at least I wasn’t). This is why companies (IBM) need to provide some serious training for women (and men) to become better leaders BEFORE they become managers. We have not learned how to give straight feedback and not hurt (frustrate) the other person, we have not learned how to fire somebody with decency. And we have not learned what it takes to implement a high performance culture. Good bosses (women and men) excel mostly at one thing: being extremely good as leaders.

So first of all women (and men) should aquire these abilities before (!) they become leaders. Otherwise companies (IBM) will end up with a bunch of managers unable to fulfill their basic tasks, frustrating all of their employees (which unfortunately is common practise). It is funny you don’t mention the basic skills women (and men) need, in order to become good leaders. You also don’t mention how IBM is teaching those skills (and let’s all hope they do).

I am afraid that visibility and work/life balance will NOT build a leadership pipeline for IBM. They might help women stand out from the crowd based on a single criteria: gender. I suggest women (and men) should learn the skills necessary to become great leaders and stand out through their skills and by what they can do as leaders. That would build a leadership pipeline and put women in the spotlight. And yes some companies are doing just that: take a look at GE.

Posted by: Axel Zein
September 3, 2013
6:30 pm

I think companies of today need to keep their eyes on many targets that hinder the development of the best possible workforce.

For today’s workers, a major problem is the development of women into leadership problems, which this study does an admirable job addressing.

One area where I’m particularly concerned is earlier in the pipeline: tomorrow’s workers. The current state of the education system shows disproportionate achievement in reading/writing between boys and girls, which may be a contributor to young women seeking to attend and complete college at a much higher rate than young men.

To gain the best insights, companies should promote the development of policies that help both men and women achieve and advance to the highest levels.

Posted by: R Dean
September 3, 2013
5:42 pm

Want to change up the diversity in the boardroom and build that leadership pipeline ? Let’s teach women in business to learn the game of golf. If men can use golf to get ahead in their companies, why shouldn’t women do the same? An estimated 90 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs play golf. With women making up 60 percent of today’s work force, it is no surprise that more women are realizing what CEOs like Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Donald Trump and Charles Schwab have known all along: 18 holes of match play will teach you more about your opponent than 18 years of dealing with him (or her) across a desk. High profile women executives like Donna Shalala, President of University of Miami, designer Vera Wang and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice play the game.
As Co-Founder of Boardroom Golf &Travel and Director of Marketing of Executive Of Women’s Golf Association, Palm Beach Chapter, my advice to current and future business women is to learn the game of golf. Success on the course and success in business have a lot in common. In both, you have to know how to focus, prepare well in order to perform well and need to have a positive attitude. You have to learn how to perform under pressure and sudden challenges, and be able to process a lot of information in a short period of time. You also need to be up-to-date and informed about the latest technology. Having a sense of humor helps, too. There are plenty of articles written on this same subject. Additionally, golf can be a lifetime activity to be used for work and leisure well into retirement.

Want to learn the why’s and how’s to “get into the game”, consider attending our event in Pebble Beach in January. This event is designed for the business women to rethink their approach in business through the game of golf. There is no better way to accomplish this goal than on the course at Pebble Beach. Together we can change the dynamics of women in leadership one game at a time. Your invite awaits a If you can’t attend, consider an on location workshop. We welcome your call.

Posted by: Barbara Gutstadt
September 3, 2013
1:41 pm

While many of the findings were not new to me in this study, I read it with excitement and pride to see IBM’s interest and focus on the issue. It is very appropriate and heart-warming to read this on IBM’s Building a Smarter Planet blog.

Posted by: Ellen Gullo
August 27, 2013
11:59 am

Great insights from this study that can apply not only for women but for men as well.. Regards,, Manuel

Posted by: Manuel Avalos
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