Many career women fail to advance themselves because they fear taking risks, according to speakers presenting during a panel discussion at a conference for professional women in New York City on Friday.

Organized by the National Association of Professional Women at the Sheraton New Times Square Hotel, the speakers – nearly all chief executives at their respective companies – were among a host of luminaries who have achieved business success. The keynote speakers included Huffington Post Media Group President and Chief Executive Ariana Huffington; Martha Stewart, founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia; and Star Jones, an attorney and NAPW’s national spokeswoman. 

NAPW panelists“Fear prevents us from doing so many things in life,” said Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rogers, a speaker on the panel. “We all have to dig deep to understand who we are. You can’t be afraid to pursue what you really want. You can’t fear rejection.”

Boom! Social CEO Kim Garst agreed. “Too often we let fear hold us back,” she said. “You only fail when you quit – when you give up on yourself.”

A common impediment for women seeking to advance themselves professionally in the workplace is a fear or unwillingness to “toot their horn” to their superiors. MORE Magazine Editor in Chief Lesley Jane Seymour said that she was naive in believing that she could get ahead at Vogue magazine, her former employer, by simply doing a good job. To get noticed, she said, you have to take risks and “put yourself out there.”

Another focus during the one-hour panel discussion was a recently published book that is getting much media buzz: “Lean In,” authored by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Turning to the panelists, NAPW National Spokeswoman Star Jones asked how they “lean in” or endeavor to “empower themselves” in the workplace.

Uniworld Group Chairman and CEO Monique Nelson said she sought a job as as an executive assistant to a CEO, a position that gave her a bird’s-eye view of the skills required to exercise leadership at the top of the corporate hierarchy.

Johnson Publishing’s Rogers added that, four decades after women began entering the workforce in large numbers, they’ve earned the “divine right” to reshape the corporate culture to one that allows women to pursue more varied ways to succeed in the workplace. A single “cookie-cutter” approach – for example, one that insists that women forgo raising children or spending quality time with their families to advance professionally – is no longer acceptable.

Boom! Social’s Garst added that women should believe in the “power of the possible” and therefore not limit their career ambitions to preconceived notions about their skills and abilities.

The panelists agreed that social media like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are powerful tools with which to build both personal and corporate brands, as well as to advance professionally. But they cautioned that users need to be careful about using such online forums appropriately.

“Don’t put anything on social media that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see,” said Garst. “These communications live online forever.”

MORE Magazine’s Seymour noted also that users should take time to consider how and whether to post on such public forums. To that end, added Star, users should consider whether social media communications:

  1. Require a response;
  2. Require a response from you; and
  3. Require an immediate response.

Something else to consider is the often fine line that separates business and personal online communications. When in doubt, said Seymour, consult with your employer to determine what messages are appropriate for professional purposes.

Uniworld’s Nelson added that communications, whether conducted through social media or in-person, must be consistent and truthful as to actions, intentions and purpose in order to build and strengthen one’s corporate brand.

“It’s all about you and your integrity,” she said. If you’re authentic, then you’ll connect with others. Honesty is still the best policy.”

When asked how they balance the demands of their personal and work lives, the panelists concurred that it’s not possible to fully devote oneself to one or the other at all times, as trade-offs inevitably occur.

“It’s an impossible dream to believe you can have everything you want professionally and personally at all times,” said Seymour. “There are times when you’ll have to lean back.”

Uniworld’s Nelson observed, however, that any resulting harm professionally will be lessoned if your employer is more supportive of solutions that address work-life issues.

“I’m now pregnant and so my staff will now have to communicate with me via Skype,” she said. “As my company’s CEO, I dictate the corporate culture, and I want it to be family-friendly. I have to set an example.”