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Learning from the Giants

Women remain grossly underrepresented in executive offices. Yet the personal stories of women who made it to the top of some of the most powerful companies in recent years provide powerful role models for women aspiring to become business leaders.

What women need, however, are not fairy tales of perfect career progression, but real-life stories of women working themselves to the top and overcoming the ups and downs that inevitably come with success.

The inspiring autobiography of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and the nuanced portrait of former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer are particularly instructive:

Confronting obstacles: Sheryl Sandberg

In her autobiography, Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg details how she made her way from Harvard graduate to US Treasury Secretary Larry Summer’s chief of staff to becoming a VP at Google. While touching on some of the common external obstacles executive women face in the corporate world, such as the lack of child care options and overt discrimination, she also talks about some of the internal or self-imposed hurdles women need to overcome. Drawing from her own experience, she calls upon women to speak up more, even if doing so feels uncomfortable or comes at the risk of being stamped as “too aggressive.” She also warns women not to let their wish to start a family prevent them from accepting a promotion: once the child is here, she advises, women always have the option to leave if they wish to do so.

“When the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it.”

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Taking Risks: Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer’s stint as CEO of Yahoo is not commonly seen as a success story. Yet her personal story as a leader is nevertheless compelling. As a young graduate from Stanford, she turned down several well-paying job offers to take a position at a then-obscure start-up, Google. She had a knack for focusing her energies on the skills and tasks she excelled at the most, which led her to interface design.

Within two years, she advanced to become one of the most indispensable Google employees and eventually became a VP at the company. Yet her biography also details many of her shortcomings, including a tendency to play favorites, a leadership style that eroded employee morale, and a propensity to act on her own. Her failings, however, make her human – and her story provides a powerful case study from which all women leaders can learn.

“The moral of Mayer’s story was that it’s always better to surround yourself with the best people so that they will challenge you and you will grow.”

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To read more about powerful women and common workplace challenges women face, check out getAbstract’s Women in Leadership channel.

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