Susan Colantuono: The career advice you probably didn’t get


Susan Colantuono is the CEO and founder of Leading Women. She is the author of No Ceiling, No Walls: What women haven’t been told about leadership, which takes a close look at the conventional wisdom keeping women from rising from middle management.


Women now occupy 50% of middle management positions, but less than a third of that portion in upper management. Leadership skills are required at all levels of management – defined by using your own skills and engaging with others to help the organisation achieve its goals. However in the highest positions, the most important skill is ‘Business, strategic, and financial acumen’ – or the ability to understand the business, and people’s roles. This is the skill that is missing in the advice given to women – not because they are incapable of achieving it but because it isn’t recognised as a skill they are advised to acquire.

As an example, Susan was discussing with some executives what they look for in people with executive potential: they recognise personal success & work ethic, and they recognise people skills. When asked about high level strategy and business understanding they say “That’s a given”. When Susan asks women how many have heard that this skill is important, very few have had that advice. Most advice given to women relates to developing negotiating skills, personal branding, networking and self confidence. This is good advice for reaching middle management positions, but is not enough to reach executive level. Additionally, performance & talent systems focus on personal achievement & leadership, and are not directing people to develop business or strategic skills.

Men are doing a better job of developing business skills through mentoring and networking – being sponsored by someone at the top. In one case, an executive mentored a man and a woman – helping the man learn the business and helping the woman develop self-confidence. At the time he didn’t realise he was treating them differently.

Actions that can be taken from these findings: For women to develop they need to demonstrate financial acumen. Even for people not at middle management yet, by weaving financial or strategic information into project reports it can really impress those above. For executives, these findings should cause concern – it shows a lack of strategic alignment if their middle managers do not understand the skills expected of them to advance. Additionally, boards should demand proportional succession pools to fill future executive positions, with CEOs and HR prepared to help high potential employees get the skills needed. By recognising and acting on this, we can close the gender gap at the top.

My Thoughts

Very worthwhile topic and wonderful result – to identify what is missing in middle managers to help them become executives. Although I am not a woman, personally I will take the advice to develop high level strategic skills in the workplace.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that the only thing missing is the advice to develop business, strategic and financial skills. I would have thought that people aiming for executive positions should be capable of recognising they need these skills. It is possible that executives do not see women as having these skills – similar to the example in Susan’s talk who mentored his men and women differently. In this case the women can’t just learn the skills, they need to take the chance to show them off as much as possible as well.

Regardless, an enjoyable and useful talk.

3 thoughts on “Susan Colantuono: The career advice you probably didn’t get

  1. “Men are doing a better job of developing business skills through mentoring and networking – being sponsored by someone at the top. In one case, an executive mentored a man and a woman – helping the man learn the business and helping the woman develop self-confidence. At the time he didn’t realise he was treating them differently.”

    It’s interesting that the executive helped the woman develop self-confidence. The idea that women need to improve self-confidence to succeed isn’t a chauvinistic remnant of past.. it’s actually something taught by those trying to help more women succeed in business.

    Perhaps the takeaway from this TED talk is that we should stop replacing old stereotypes about women with new ones, avoid thinking of people based on what “groups” they fall into, and focus on equal opportunity for every individual instead of equal representation for groups of people.

    My personal viewpoint is that in a truly gender-blind world it would be preposterous to think that there would be many types of careers a workforce male/female ratio proportionate to the population. When did we stop focusing on equal opportunity and start focusing on equal representation?

    • Thanks for your comment N0body.

      I agree that it is possible this woman needed to develop self-confidence – but I don’t know her and perhaps Susan Colantuono didn’t either. A good mentor should develop their protege based on personal needs.

      What would be concerning is if he gave “slick networking and tricks of the trade” to all men and “develop self confidence advice” to all women. Not clear if that’s what was happening in this anecdote though. 🙂

      At lease Susan didn’t use the sleazy and derogatory “Lean in” advice. Just hearing that phrase makes me shudder.

  2. My belief is that both men and women in middle management roles should be able to self-assess their development needs. Mentors should develop both genders equally to enhance the employee’s business and strategic skills by creating projects for them each to manage. Those projects should always drive continuous improvement ideas in addition to LEAN SIX SIGMA strategies to maintain the organization’s forward thinking centering around sustainability.

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