Top tips for women in the workplace

by Italia Boninelli

Despite the plethora of literature on gender equity issues and the range of women’s development programmes, women are still asking: “Why is it so difficult to break through the glass ceiling?”  The tips that follow come from my personal experience in executive roles across different industries and the insights gained from coaching women in senior management and executive roles together with the results of a research study I conducted in a South African bank, focused on identifying which factors allowed women to break through the ranks.

Understanding the competencies required of the job at the next level

Tip 1: Get a copy of the role description and KPIs of the job you aspire to, so you can start to assess what is really required to succeed and what your gaps might be.

Many women continue to believe that delivering good results at their current job level will eventually be noticed and earn them a promotion.  But the initial strengths that led to promotions early in their careers can later become “fatal flaws” when women continue to repeat the same formula and fail to realize that success at the next level up is not ‘more of’ what they are currently doing but adding qualitatively different competencies and skills.  Yet with only a very loose understanding of how operating at a strategic level as an executive differs from what they are currently doing, there is little chance of building a coherent strategy for developing the additional skills and competencies required for the next level of work up.

Bridging the gaps

Tip 2:  Ask yourself: “How good is my environmental scanning?  What feedback loops have I created?  Is ‘Best Practice’ part of my ongoing plan?”

Successful executives put in place some key practices to enhance their skills in areas where they have gaps or staff their teams with people with appropriate skills who can compensate.  For example, in order to deliver solutions which will move the dial for the company, one needs to be informed of best practice, be able to identify developing trends and be fully in touch with how customers, staff and other key stakeholders’ expectations are being met.

Insufficient long-term career planning and risk propensity  

Tip 3:  Identify which some ‘key achievements’ you hope to complete in the next career cycle and create the time and mental space and find the resources to ensure you achieve these.

It is all too easy to get caught up in dozens of e-mails a day, ten meetings a day and five crises a day and arrive at the end of the year exhausted but with nothing of great significance to show for all the effort.   Many of the successful executives set clear career goals for each career cycle of 3-5 years and even write their CV that way –the first page usually contains a set of ‘key achievements’.  These executives also show a higher risk propensity and will take a job that is somewhat outside their normal area of expertise because it represents an opportunity to gain experience in a new area.  Even when such moves prove less than successful, they seem better able than women to capitalise on the learning experience and avoid immobilising self-doubt, accepting the lack of success as a short-term situation.

Breadth vs. depth of skills

Tip 4:  Take every opportunity to build the breadth of your business acumen and to demonstrate your ability to generate solutions across the business value chain, and not just within your discipline.

Almost all managers display a significant depth of experience which has supported their career success thus far.  However, many women spend considerably more time in staff or specialist roles rather than in line roles, while the managers who later make successful executives had made more frequent career shifts and as a result were more knowledgeable about different functions and divisions.  They were thus better able to provide integrated solutions born out of a wider perspective of the organization.

Mentors, coaches and development plans

Tip 5:  Stop waiting for someone to assign you a mentor or coach.  Go out and seek one – just be realistic as to the time availability of senior people with busy calendars.

Many women report that they do not have mentors or coaches and that developmental plans are not regularly discussed with them by their managers.  While this reflects poorly on their managers who are not actively developing them, it reflects equally poorly on the women themselves who have not taken proactive steps to address this shortcoming.  The majority of successful executives report having had a strong mentor and/or coach at critical points of their career and also mentioned having taking taken proactive steps at the early stages of their career in approaching someone in a senior position and asking to be mentored.

Networking and relationship management

Tip 6:  Rethink your networking strategies.  First step is to realise what you have of value to offer (refer to those ‘key achievements’) and then work out what other people have of value to offer and accept that networking is like an exchange of commodities.

Many successful executives display a characteristic pattern of networking that differs from that of other groups.  Successful executives use networking to establish ‘Contacts’ who can provide them with information, influence, introductions, invitations, access and power that can really help leverage the solutions they can develop. Women tend to see networking as they would personal friendships i.e. requiring a level of emotional commitment usually reserved for only a handful of close relatives and friends.  While women typically reported having a network of 30-50 people at that level, the successful executives reported networks of in excess of 200 people.

Self-esteem & Personal branding

Tip 7:  Personal branding is a skill that can be learnt and effectively applied.

Many of the executives have an instinctive grasp of personal branding and have used this to their advantage, compared to the relative modesty that characterised the women who often failed to take credit for their successes or did not market and brand themselves well.  Women often fail to project an image of self-confidence or at times ‘over-compensate’ coming across as overly aggressive and ‘more of a man than the men’.


Females may lack certain key competencies required for executive functioning, which were not adequately covered in past developmental programmes, appraisal processes or job exposure. But this is not irremediable – as has clearly been shown.  Organizations in turn need to address the cultural and organizational climate issues which create unnatural barriers to the progression of women.  They can also provide the training and development opportunities and the access to mentors and coaches which would ensure that more women are enabled to reach the top layers of the organization.

Italia Boninelli is an HR Strategist and Executive coach (Previously Executive VP: People & Org. Dev, AngloGold Ashanti)


  1. The ‘glass ceiling’ can best be described as that invisible barrier that allows you to see to the top of the corporate ladder but blocks off access to the top rungs.
  2. Italia has held executive roles in financial services, healthcare and mining.  She is now an independent consultant and executive coach.
  3. Boninelli, Italia. (2004) “Is the glass ceiling a myth or reality?” in HR Future, 18 February 2004, pp. 18-20.

Neuroscience for Leadership – Top Tips

Neuroscience is at the forefront of innovation in leadership. Dr Tara Swart, the  only  leadership  coach  with  a  PhD  in  neuroscience  and  a successful career as medical doctor, offers her top tips for doing more with less, for longer, without burning out!

1.  Simplicity:  We have a limited bucket of cognitive resources, so reducing choices can play an important role in how we decide to spend our cognitive resources. Don’t waste big brain power on small unimportant decisions.

2.  Hydration and oxygenation: We need to drink half a litre of water daily for every 15kg of our body mass – so get drinking! Getting oxygen into our bodies and brains also boosts our ability to think, so take 10 deep breathes before an important meeting – or get exercising.

3.  Nutrition: With our brain using 20-30% of what we eat, be sure to give it the food it needs. Brain-friendly foods include: salmon, avocado, eggs, nuts, olives, dried fruit, and vegetables. As Dr Swart says “I choose what I eat so that I make better decisions”.

4.  Sleep: We all need 7-9 hours a night… at least! The research is staggering around the neural deficits experienced when we sleep for less than this.

5.  Mindfulness: 12 minutes of mindfulness a day is all it takes to improve your resilience and cortisol levels. In a world of overload, are you strong enough to put your smart phone down and DO NOTHING, if it means you’ll live a longer and healthier life?

Dr Tara Swarts unique background and depth of experience creates an uncompromising and holistic approach to performance optimisation, which has been incredibly successful with banks, hedge funds and chief executives, as well as business schools.
Email or CLICK HERE to find out more about her Workshop Facilitation, Executive Coaching, Keynotes or Taras Leading Sustainable Performance program

Where have the Leaders gone?


Leaderex 2016 held in Johannesburg last month posed an important question some of South Africa’s top CEOs, heads of business school and executive teams; “Where have all the leaders gone?”

The question provided a great transition into discussions about the state of leadership in South Africa, and the world in general, and laid the foundation for a host of sparkling debates and frank discussions on leadership. It would seem, from popular consensus, that the demise of leadership in South Africa, whilst a real challenge, may have been somewhat exaggerated.  

A Local View

Prof. Nicola Kleyn, Dean of GIBS echoed the feelings of many at Leaderex – “leadership starts with self”. She highlighted that our own day-to-day lives often demand that we play multiple leadership roles. This message supports conventional wisdom, that no matter who we are, or what status we hold, we all have a leadership role to play. “We have passed the point where we can simply look on and shake our heads. We all need to stand up and be counted” said Kleyn.

But how do we get this right? How do we turn around the confusion to create clarity around leadership? According to Dave Duarte, founder of digital marketing company Treeshake, it’s all about direction. The void is simply because “many leaders are more worried about holding an office than about creating direction”. Duarte’s view was backed by Jonathan Foster-Pedley from Henley Business School who stated that “The point of leadership is to provide people with purpose and meaning, and a sense of integrity and value. A good leader will make you and me give every last thing we have in the service of something we would die for.”

Yes We Can

So the question is, are we even remotely capable?  “Yes!” That was the clear message from the University of Stellenbosch’s Piet Naudé.  “We do have leaders capable of providing direction”. But as events unfold in pre-election United States and post-Brexit United Kingdom, it would seem that we are simply part of a bigger challenge.  “The world is currently battling the wrong kind of leadership. Leaders who use populist language and draw people back into their nationalistic and ethnic self-enclosed lives, whilst [what we need is] more openness and cooperation in a global world,” he said. Leadership is a responsibility, and just like businesses have a responsibility to its own employees, customers and stakeholders, so too is there a responsibility toward playing a moral and socially conscious role in providing direction for people.  When there is political uncertainty, business plays an even more critical role in guiding the performance and morals of the people it chooses to serve and employ.  Yet, to fulfil this role, we all need to be open to learning, change, and trying different approaches to achieve results.

A Lifelong Lesson

There are thousands of books, podcasts, and training courses on the topic of leadership, so many that it becomes hard to know which one to read, believe, implement. But can the skill of leadership really be learned or is this something we’re born with?  For the most part, our leadership lives start out with mimicry. For many of us, leadership skills are acquired from our earliest role models, and we quickly play back the tapes once given to us by parents, guardians, managers, community leaders and professors. So it’s not really what we’re born with but rather how we’re raised as leaders.  A leadership development challenge is figuring out how to break the patterns of the past and provide leaders with a new set of skills, tools and techniques for leading effectively in the workplace. Yet the study of leadership is no more an intervention than winning an election is an overnight game. Leadership is a lifelong study. And it would seem that the earlier in life you start, the better.

Leadership is the pursuit of greatness, achieved through others – a task that mankind may never be able to definitively tick. There is no silver bullet for leadership, but the positive and conscious application of a leadership philosophy can cause an attitude shift that helps you discover some great ammunition for leading along the way.

Whichever leadership philosophy you choose to follow, be mindful that it is just for now. The lessons we need to learn as leaders will continue to evolve, and change, over time. Perhaps our original question is rhetorical.  It’s not “where have all the leaders gone?” but more a statement of fact, that “leadership is forever a work in progress” and we should all be striving to build our own leadership capacity.

The great minds that coalesced at Leaderex offered us some starting points. Ponder these daily, for some time, and see what unfolds on your journey:  Listen. Have strong values. Inspire others. Know your purpose. Be a role model. Strive to achieve the impossible. Be Visionary. Be bold. Be transparent. And, be kind.  We are all living examples of leadership, and we all have the power to make a positive and meaningful difference.