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Fortune Magazine editor lauds women's progress

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Professional growth and on-the-job comfort do not co-exist, according to Pattie Sellers.

The editor-at-large of Fortune Magazine, Sellers offered this bit of wisdom in a wide-ranging morning keynote address at the IICF Women in Insurance Global Conference, being held in New York City June 12-14. The annual conference convenes more than 400 business executives from leading corporations, as well as educational leaders and subject matter experts.

During the keynote, Sellers shared her views on what it takes for women to rise up the corporate hierarchy and excel in a traditionally male bastion: the company C-suite. Peppering her talk with anecdotes (and  gossip) about leading female corporate chiefs, Sellers drew upon the insights she’s gained as co-chair of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, a gathering of preeminent women in business, plus leaders in government, philanthropy, education and the arts.

Among them: Ginni Rometty, the current chairman, president and CEO of IT solutions provider IBM. Sellers said that early in her career at IBM, Rometty demurred when offered a senior management role, citing her lack of experience and time at the company. After consulting with her husband, who urged her to reconsider, she accepted the job; and said Sellers, Rometty now believes she would not now be CEO if she had not reversed her position.

“Rometty is a really wonderful example of a woman who believes that growth and comfort do not co-exist,” said Sellers.

She added that women should think of a professional career path as a “jungle gym” because the corporate world is so unpredictable, requiring women to be conscious of career-enhancing opportunities and how best to leverage them, while also alert to obstacles that may hinder their progress.

Sellers warned that women aspiring to a senior leadership position within their company should take their skills elsewhere if the employer’s corporate culture throws up barriers to advancement.

“If you see a glass ceiling, go someplace else,” said Sellers, quoting former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina, whom Sellers noted was removed from the CEO position in part because her candid comments alienated HP board members. “You have to find a culture that’s rights for you.”

And, when they’re in a position of influence, they need to try to change the culture. Sellers cited the experience of Deanna Mulligan, who joined Guardian Life Insurance Company of America as executive vice president in 2008, went on to become CEO in July of 2011. Since taking the helm of the carrier–the fourth largest mutual insurance company with assets of $33 billion–Mulligan has instituted initiatives to cultivate promising women aspiring to leadership positions; and she has transformed business processes.

But, said Sellers, Mulligan was hesitant about making certain changes until Superstorm Sandy, which, among things, forced the company to relocate its New York-based headquarters.  The lesson of Mulligan’s experience, said Sellers, is to “embrace crises.”

One measure of women’s progress in the corporate sphere, she added, is that women feel more at ease to be themselves. Whereas in decades past they may have felt compelled to be “flamboyant,” or adopt a certain persona, today women at the top are “a lot more normal.” “The once narrow band of acceptable behavior for a female CEO has widened,” said Sellers. “But a woman who tries to put herself out there too strongly is taking risks. A key to success on the job is to be yourself–to be authentic.”

Sellers added a woman’s sense of power need not be limited to the authority she wields in the workplace.

“You need to find your own definition of power,” she said. “If your power is about what you can do beyond your job, then you are powerful.”