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Women with ambition: Here are your top 10 tips for getting ahead

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“Embrace your ambition. Act with confidence and conviction. Don’t dither when making decisions.” Patricia Henry, an executive vice president at the global multiline insurer ACE Group, offered these tips during a June 19 presentation of the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation’s IICF Women in Insurance Global Conference. Titled “Top List 10 List to Get to the Corner Office,” the talk included suggestions to help women occupying leadership roles at insurers be more effective on the job and advance their careers. The following is a recap.

Tip No. 1: Be as visible as you can be within your company, and externally.

In the run-up to a company meeting in which you’re a participant, you need to plan ahead, said Henry (pictured at right). That may entail, for example, preparing arguments and illustrations that might convince other participants to support your position on an issue.

Also useful to have in mind, she added, are more general comments — thoughts about economic, business or political developments of mutual interest; or information that conveys your active interest in the work or accomplishments of other participants — that might help others get comfortable with you.

“So when the meeting gets underway, you’re a presence — people will gravitate towards you,” said Henry. “Once a meeting gets fully underway, a little rapport will have developed with the men in the room. Then, it’s easier to break into more substantive points.”

To gain visibility externally, Henry said, you need to do more public speaking. If uncomfortable with presenting before an audience, start with small engagements until you gain confidence.

The payoff could be substantial in terms of career enhancement. The reason: Many positions at senior levels get filled through informal networks of business people gathered at conventions, seminars and the like.

As a result of the reputation she earned as an effective speaker and communicator, said Henry, an ACE Group senior executive tapped her to manage a Washington, D.C.-based company unit handling asbestos claims. That job, in turn, led to her selection as general counsel for the company in the U.S.

“I didn’t apply for either job,” said Henry. “The reason why I got the two phone calls is because I consciously made myself known internally and externally at ACE.”

The new position availed her of a still more prominent role: serving as technical advisor to nine CEOs (including AIG’s Maurice “Hank” Greenberg) to help shape the insurance industry’s position on federal legislation governing asbestos. The work entailed 80-hour work weeks and toiling through weekends, but brought a degree of industry visibility she would not have otherwise enjoyed.

Tip No. 2: Deliver prepared remarks with brevity. 

Henry said she has a tendency to ramble when speaking, but can be concise when needed. She noted, however, that it takes effort to keep talking points to a few bulleted items. And so has had to “consciously work at it.”

Tip No. 3: Don’t hesitate when making decisions.

Henry said she enjoys the confidence of ACE Group Chairman and CEO Evan Greenberg, in part because of her ability to make strategic decisions without dilly-dallying.

“Even if it’s not the perfect decision, you have to make decisions and own them,” said Henry. “As we continue to grow at ACE, one of my concerns is whether we’ll be able to stay nimble and make decisions efficiently — an issue for many large organizations.”

Tip No. 4: Exude confidence and conviction.

Henry said her own sense of confidence is inspired in part by people who have served as role models. One she cited is Maya, the fictional CIA intelligence analyst who tracked down Osama Bin Laden’s location in Pakistan. As portrayed by Jessica Chastain in the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” Maya states there is a “100 percent chance” that Bin Laden is occupying the compound under CIA surveillance; and her certainty led to the White House decision to send a Seal Team 6 to raid the compound on May 2, 2011.

“Maya handled her confidence and conviction in ways that were really effective,” said Henry. “She was 100 percent sure of [Bin Laden’s] presence. I try to show the same confidence when I interact with colleagues, most of them men.”

Tip No. 5: Understand and adopt your company’s culture.

That means, among other things, knowing who the important people are within one’s organization, how decisions get made and aligning one’s attitude and deportment with ethos and values of the company.

ACE Group, said Henry, has an “entrepreneurial and aggressive” culture, and so she has endeavored to adopt this same self-starter mentality. The initiative-taking on a personal level — inviting colleagues out for coffee or lunch and establishing strategic relationships with key people — also aligned with her career ambitions.

“[These actions] may feel phony and fake because they’re forced,” said Henry. “But you’re doing it for a reason: to advance your career. Men do this all the time.”

Tip #6: Embrace your ambition.

Women often are reluctant to tell colleagues what they want in a job for fear of being perceived as overly ambitious. This aversion can, Henry warned, put them at a disadvantage to male colleagues who may be competing for influence or a higher position with the firm.

“Overcoming this disinclination is not just about being confident,” said Henry. “You have to ask for what you want. Write down your objectives and connect with the manager or executive — through, say, a LinkedIn invitation or an executive assistant — who has the authority to bring them to fruition.

“You have to let people know what you want,” she added. “That’s the only way to get to the next level job.”

Tip #7: Approach your job with a sense of urgency and passion.

Henry said she’s “very passionate” about her job because she believes strongly in the ACE Group’s mission and corporate goals. But if such enthusiasm is “not your natural state,” you still need to bring a sense of earnestness to your job if you’re to impress colleagues and advance your career goals.

Otherwise, your position could be imperiled. Henry called to mind a $140 million judgment in a case that was due to go to post-trial mediation. When a colleague working on the case said he intended to outsource his workload because he was leaving for vacation, she replied with disbelief. Result: He no longer works at ACE.

“I know that many young people believe they should be able to select their work hours — and sometimes you can. But, depending on your role, many times you can’t.”

As, for example, when a meeting is arranged at a time when it suits other people’s schedules.

“If nine CEOs are meeting in D.C. at the same time as my daughter is having ballet recital, then I have to decide what my priorities are,” she said. “It’s not the right choice for everyone, but I made the decision to go to the meeting with the nine CEOs.”

Tip #8: Be authentic and know what you value.

To act inauthentically — to try to be someone you’re not — will strike others as posturing and prove unsuccessful, Henry warned. 

Tip #9: Dress appropriately because appearance matters.

Dress codes today range from the buttoned-down look to less than business casual. Clothing to be worn at work, said Henry, should be consistent with the corporate culture and the professional appearance expected when interfacing with people externally.

Tip #10: Don’t be shy about negotiating more favorable terms for a position after accepting a job offer. 

This negotiating tactic, said Henry, can increase your leverage in smoothing over potential personal or professional time conflicts.

“Many professional women worry about taking on a role they’re not 100 percent sure they can commit to,” said Henry. “It’s often better to take the job, then negotiate adjustments you may need to make the job align with your family life.

“Men do this all the time,” she added. “And believe it or not, companies more often than not go along with their requests. Women in leadership roles need to do more of this.”

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