What Glass Ceiling? Just Do It!


Until solutions are found for the glass ceiling in the C-suite and on boards, I’d like to quote Eleanor Roosevelt – “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” – and suggest from my work and life experience some ways that women can perform at their best.

My firm recently hosted Harvard Business School’s expert on human capital, Professor Boris Groysberg, on a visit to New Zealand and Australia. He came up with a simple explanation for the shortage of women at the top of corporations:

"Women are present in large numbers in the executive ranks, but when you look up, what do you see? You see men. And why do you see men? Because men like networking with men and that is what helps them get ahead. This is not a conspiracy. It’s natural. Women like networking with women, and Russians like networking with Russians (Boris is Russian American)."

If they want to get ahead, women need to network with men inside their organisations. They must invest as much time in their internal male networks as they do with their external support systems. In my career I’ve operated on the basis that I would just accept that there is an unconscious bias among men (just as there is among women), and act accordingly. It is not empowering to be sitting complaining about the old boys’ club; what is empowering is to find yourself inside the network.

Here are some of my success tips:

  • “Be true to yourself”. Be strategic about how to get noticed, but don’t try to behave like men. The key is to be authentic rather than trying to be someone you’re not.
  • “Just do it”. When I set up my executive search company on arriving in New Zealand from the United Kingdom, all the research said the market was saturated, but we got a sense that many clients were looking for something better. We ignored the competition, started the business, focused on quality and soon carved out a substantial niche.
  • “Never stop at second best”. If you can do something better, do it better even if you have to work through the night. Write well, think clearly and delight your client.
  • “Seek the counsel of others, and give them credit for your success”. When confronted with a task, my first thought is, “Who do I know who can do this better than me?”
  • “Don’t let people put you in a box”. I’ve never let the fact that I’ve been too young, a woman, British, or any other perceived limitation get in the way of my work. I don’t accept excuses from others and I don’t accept them from myself.
  • “Don’t follow social norms”. The concept of being a perfect parent is a fallacy. Enjoy your job and don’t feel the need to treat your children like royalty. Give your child the space to be independent, take responsibility and make a positive contribution to the household. You will be proud of the great citizens they turn out to be and enjoy the domestic liberation.

My bottom line is that I’ve never been concerned about the bottom line. I’ve never focussed on the financial rewards, but only look at what is right for my client and my candidates. If you do that, and do what you’re passionate about, the rewards will come.

Lilias Bell
Partner, Heidrick & Struggles
Lilias is a partner with the Asia Pacific Education & Social Enterprise Practice (ESE) based in Wellington, New Zealand. Having joined Heidrick & Struggles through the acquisition of her firm, Bell McCaw Bampfylde (BMB), Lilias focuses primarily on the ESE Practice with an active role in the Financial Services and Global Technology & Services practices.

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