What distinguishes professional women who successfully transition to leadership positions within their companies from those who, though equally competent, never move up the corporate hierarchy? The answer is the former know how to promote themselves to, and cultivate relationships with, the powers that be within their organizations.  

This was a key take-away of an afternoon workshop hosted by the National Association of Professional Women in midtown Manhattan on April 26. The talk was presented by Bonnie Marcus, founder and principal of Women’s Success Coaching and a contributor to Forbes magazine.

For me, the workshop was illuminating on two counts. It offered a roadmap to professional advancement for women in insurance and financial services who are seeking an alternative to careers as advisors, such as home office advanced sales professionals or managers of general agencies. The talk also held value for women aspiring to success as advisors, because the cultivating of relationships is key to the building of a referral-based practice.

Marcus observed that while women in the U.S. are now better educated than men — they have more college degrees and enjoy higher grade point averages than their male counterparts — the superior academic numbers have not yielded a more equitable representation for them in C-suites. Women, she noted, now hold only 17 percent of the nation’s top leadership positions.

Among the barriers to advancement, she said, citing a study by McKinsey & Co., are a lack of access to informal networks, role models and sponsoring corporate executives who might support women meriting promotions to leadership positions. Too often, women assume that higher ups will promote them based solely on their skills and accomplishments. They fail to recognize that getting ahead requires playing politics: knowing who within the company can champion their leadership aspirations; and knowing how to leverage professional relationships to achieve the desired result.

“You need to tell yourself, “I need to get political because it will help me transition to a leadership role and accelerate my career,” said Marcus. “It’s important that you embrace the politics and learn how to be politically savvy. That means knowing how to build trust and confidence with people across the organization.”

To that end, Marcus developed a “political toolkit,” including a “magnifying glass,” a “Pass Go, Collect $200 Card,” and a “Get-out-of-Jail-Free Card.” The first of these, the magnifying glass, signifies an understanding of one’s value proposition and credibility within the organization. The Pass-Go-Collect $200 card represents “strategic networking,” or building alliances with key individuals in other departments. The Get-out-of-Jail-Free card symbolizes a C-suite mentor, a top exec who will champion a female protégé’s career advancement.

These tools, said Marcus, are key not only to corporate advancement, but doing so faster than might otherwise be achieved.  Citing an academic study, she noted that women who proactively educate (without bragging) company leaders about their value proposition or transferable skills are promoted faster, better compensated and achieve more fulfilling careers.

But to realize these gains, aspiring female leaders not only have to acquaint centers of influence with their skill sets; they also have to align their value proposition with problems requiring solutions. Thus the need, said Marcus, to “question, listen to and observe” your targeted audience, such as heads of departments who might benefit from one’s skill sets and help advance the envisioned career path within the company.

To illustrate, Marcus cited a client, a female marketing professional at a financial services company, who had a talent for identifying technology solutions to business problems. Marcus encouraged her to meet with executives in other business units, probing them with questions about their mission and challenges faced in pursuing objectives. And, when appropriate, she lent her time and technology skills to bring about a solution. Result: She positioned herself as a person of influence and competence whose value to the company spanned business units.

Strategic networking, the third element of Marcus’ action plan, cannot be limited to the “comfort zone” of people we like. To be effective, the networking has to be “opened” or expanded to people who can assist in one’s professional development; and, when transitioning to a leadership position is the objective, advocating for its attainment.

“It’s not about the work; it’s about the relationships,” said Marcus. “And sponsorships are the most powerful relationships you can have.

“The higher you get in an organization, the less that technical skills are important,” she added. “As you transform into a leader, the relationship skills become the most important. The people who excel — who transition to leadership positions — are the ones who really work their relationships.”

Work the relationships. That’s an imperative that all professional women in the life insurance space, be they home office executives, managers of brokerage-general agencies or advisors in the field, would do well to take to heart.