Clare DeNicola
Clare DeNicola

Rules are meant to be broken—or at least rewritten to fit the time and circumstances. That’s particularly true for female executives, who often must challenge ways of thinking both within themselves and their organizations to get ahead.

The rules for women start early: don’t cause conflict, don’t stand out too much, don’t be too aggressive. Consider my daughter who is a freshman in college. She recently made the dean’s list, and the notice included an app that allowed you to share the news on LinkedIn. She decided not to share it, saying it would be showing off. Yet, two days later when she checked her LinkedIn feed, at least five male friends had shared their own dean’s list news. The fact that none of those shares were female is no accident. It’s part of a pattern of thinking—or rules—that often starts within and is reinforced by what’s around us.

Based on our own experience in the C-suite, we’ve developed 5 new rules to help women better succeed in the workplace. We are also using them as coachable moments embedded in our VOICES leadership and communications training for women.

1) Old Rule: Always present strength.

New Rule: Go ahead, show your weakness. The perfection trap—in which women feel they have to over-prepare, be 110% qualified for every promotion—can hold you back. Authenticity is in, and, frankly, it’s a lot easier to operate effectively when you admit what you don’t know, while taking credit for your strengths. When I was named head of sales (with no previous sales experience) for a technology company, the first thing I said to the new team was, “I don’t know sales, I’m looking for you to teach me that part of the job. What I do know is how to listen to customers and translate those needs into new products and services.”

2) Old Rule: Conform to specific skills set and criteria.

New Rule: Own your style—and amplify it. Many women think they need to adapt to a predefined leadership ideal. It’s just the opposite. It’s important to work with what you have naturally and build on it. If you’re quiet, it would be impossible to suddenly transform into the most outspoken person in meetings. But a quiet person can become really good at asking great questions and summarizing powerfully. A person who is great at solving problems could be volunteering to participate in company task forces and committees.

3) Old Rule: Follow a defined career path.

New Rule: Take detours to build a set of business superpowers. Successful careers don’t always follow a straight line. I recently attended a women’s leadership conference where one of the speakers explained how her unplanned lateral career move from product development to human resources gave her an understanding of the company’s cultural issues that propelled her to the C-suite a few years later. Another example is the trajectory of a woman from support desk to senior leader. Her superpower: she understood the customers and could articulate their needs. The common denominator is that both women not only saw the value in these career detours, but they used the skills and understanding they gained to communicate their value and drive momentum for their careers.

4) Old Rule: Don’t ever violate our unwritten rules.

New Rule: Be culture-aware, but don’t let it stop you. Some companies are making progress, but most are still learning when it comes to promoting women into the most senior positions. Cultural and institutional barriers exist. But knowledge is power. Once you know what they are, don’t let them dissuade you. Work within the culture and challenge the norms where needed.

5) Old Rule: Keep emotion out of the executive suite.

New Rule: There’s no penalty for passion. Having a vision and being willing to share it is a powerful tool for female executives. Passion can expand your influence and build constituency at all levels of the organization. Successful women leaders build excitement for what they’re trying to achieve and can skillfully share that story to motivate teams. And you don’t have to be at the top of the organization to lead with passion. Setting a personal leadership mission is a great first step.

For women in the workplace, and the companies looking to promote them, the old ways of doing things, from what’s expected of leaders to how they collaborate and communicate, need a fresh look. Businesses today—more than ever before—are focused on promoting women in the workplace but that requires new ways of thinking and operating—from both women and their organizations—to open up paths to the top.


Clare DeNicola is principal at the10company, a women-owned strategic PR firm in New York. It has developed VOICES, a leadership communications coaching program for female executives.