Bumpy Road to the C-suite?


Bumpy Road to the C-suite? Here’s the Research that Explains Why. I work with aspiring women leaders, mostly in the charitable sector, in Canada. And it really bugs me that while 80% of this sector’s workforce are women, these same women are significantly under-represented when it comes to the senior leadership suite.

Why? What is happening on that journey to leadership and is there something we can learn from the obstacles these people encounter along the way?

I love a good obstacle: something that you can identify, and overcome. In fact, I often will say “the obstacle is the way.” Once you have identified the barrier, you have a hope in hell of overcoming it. Without that kind of clarity, you go round and round as a leader.

So. Back to women’s leadership and the glaring gap between the workforce and the leadership in terms of representation. (And to be clear, the underrepresentation of BIPOC communities is abysmal too. While the research I outline below did not dive into this element of intersectionality, I do think that many of the research pillars could help shed some light on obstacles affecting women of colour and other marginalized women on their journeys to the CEO suite too).

The most common goal cited by the women leaders that I coach is “I want to improve on my executive presence at work.” When you dig deeper to uncover what that means to the client, it gets distilled down to “I am looking for more confidence in my role.” 

There are invisible barriers holding women back from ascending to the senior leadership suite. My curious nature prompted me to ask the question “If we could categorise the anticipated challenges that aspiring women would encounter, would this help speed up their transition to leadership?” 

Thankfully, I met Dr Meghan Rehbein at a fundraising conference and her research helped me shed some light on how we can increase the representation of women –  and especially BIPOC women – in CEO and senior leadership roles. There are five pillars of experiences that women leaders will most likely encounter on their journey to the senior leadership table. A full list of the pillars, including podcast excerpts of the 12 women CEOs featured in the Embracing Ambition Book is available on this website.

Do you identify as a compassionate and ambitious woman leader? Read on!


… that feeling that people don’t “see” you in a leadership role.

People will not yet “see” you as a leader. And women from BIPOC communities will experience significantly more pushback towards being “seen” as a leader. The solution is to double down on referencing your experiences and track record within your role. Get more comfortable speaking to your accomplishments and if that feels uncomfortable, work with a coach to unblock some of your core beliefs about your perceptions of leadership.


… when you lose track of your personal and professional identities, accepting the false reality that you must “always be on.”

This is a cautionary tale for aspiring leaders: beware of always feeling like you must be “on” in the office. It’s a guaranteed path to burnout for you, and your staff. Because women typically over-identify with the constituent group they are representing (e.g. woman leader who has recovered from cancer working for a cancer research institute) the lines between personal and professional can get blurred, causing burnout.


… when you say yes to something you know absolutely nothing about. How hard can it be?

You are a product of your experiences. Just like lifting progressively heavier weights will make you stronger, taking on new roles and tasks will help you grow exponentially as a leader.  Say yes to a new portfolio, or a new role with the goal of getting new and different experiences. The path may not be linear to the C-suite.


… when you are the “last chance” candidate for an organisation with questionable finances because literally no one else would want the job.

Women, visible and invisible minorities, and others are offered a “last chance candidate” opportunity to step into the C-suite. These aptly labeled “glass cliff assignments” become the “heat experiences” from which leaders prove their worth while learning valuable leadership skills in a very short period when the proverbial stakes are high. Know that glass cliff assignments exist, and that you can learn a lot from them, if you keep your eyes open to the pitfalls as well as the opportunities.


… When all you see is potential and upside, even though the people around you can’t understand your vision.

Aspiring leaders see potential, not roadblocks. When coupled with an unwavering positive vision of the future, leaders can bring along boards, staff and volunteers towards a future that is not yet visible. Continue to fuel your vision for the future, even when those around you don’t see it yet. That is your special gift as a leader.


Leadership is a series of learned experiences that shape who you are, and how you show up as a leader. You can read an MBA textbook about leadership strategies. But leadership is so much more fluid than a series of best practices wrapped up in a bow.


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