Secrets of the Successful Businesswoman

What are the secrets of successful women in business? In separate keynote talks, Gail McGovern, a recent pick as one of Fortune magazine's fifty most powerful women in corporate America, and HBS professor Nancy F. Koehn laid out the facts.
by Martha Lagace

A show of hands, please. "How many of you would be fifteen minutes late for an appointment with your CEO?"

Gail McGovern, president of Fidelity Personal Investments, scanned the audience, but only a few hands wavered upwards. "Now, how many of you would be fifteen minutes late for an appointment with a friend or your family?" she asked.

Of the audience of about 850 who attended McGovern's keynote talk at the Dynamic Women in Business 2002 conference, at least half raised their arms—slowly. The auditorium shook briefly with guilty laughter. McGovern, one of Fortune magazine's fifty most powerful women in corporate America for the past two years, smiled and nodded knowingly.

"Treat the appointment with your family like you would treat the appointment with your CEO," she counseled. "Put it right on your calendar. That is your appointment. It is as sacred as the appointment that you have with the CEO."

Striking a balance between work and personal life was one of the five traits of leadership success that McGovern emphasized in her talk at Harvard Business School. The others: "Attract, attain, and motivate the best people; love and embrace change; be resilient; and make every decision based on whether or not it's good for the business." If you take the extra time to staff the best people rather than operate in the interests of expediency, you'll save yourself trouble in the long run, she said. As for her last point, about making decisions based on what's good for the business, McGovern agreed that this is easier said than done.

The money we earn comes promptly and comes to us.
—Josephine Baker, 1847

"These sound like the words of a simpleton," she said. "You're probably sitting there thinking, 'Well, what else would you base a decision on?'" But the pressures are many. What will my boss think? What will my team think? If you make smart business decisions, she said, you will make fewer mistakes. "And you know what? You'll like yourself better. You'll wake up in the morning, you'll like who you see in the mirror; people will trust you; they will think you have integrity and that's because you do have integrity. You'll also make decisions faster because you're not thinking about what everybody else will think."

If asked which trait has helped her most in her career, she said, it's the tip about staffing. But if asked which she's proudest of, it's balance. Even if you staff the best people, said McGovern, they will leave if you don't create an environment for them to achieve balance, too.

Always Dynamic Women

"Women have always been dynamic, and they've always been in business," declared Nancy Koehn in her opening keynote talk at the conference. A historian, author, and Harvard Business School professor, Koehn drew on exciting moments from the history of women in business to offer her audience a lens for sizing up future opportunities.

In the United States, she said, among the first places women worked outside the home were textile factories in Massachusetts. The work was often arduous and the hours long, but there was a curious upside, Koehn reminded the audience. That upside was a new kind of power, the power to control—to the extent possible given the conditions—their own money and time. As one factory worker, Josephine Baker, wrote in 1847, "The money we earn comes promptly and comes to us, more so than in any other situation. ... When we are finished we feel perfectly free until the time to commence again."

photo of Gail McGovern
Gail McGovern

Said Koehn, "So here, fifty years before Virginia Woolf would write A Room of One's Own, is a room of our own, an income of our own, and time of our own." From the start, she added, women made implicit and explicit tradeoffs when they left the home front. Koehn also drew on the lives of inspiring women who had seized business opportunities despite formidable odds. They included the first African-American millionaire, Celeste Walker, a child of slaves who founded a hair care empire that targeted other African-American women; Coco Chanel, who revolutionized fashion; and modern-day media goddess Oprah Winfrey, the American television personality.

"How many of us multi-tasked to get here today?" Koehn asked the audience. "How many women spend most of their waking hours multi-tasking? I'm not talking about the phone and the computer and talking to your child. I'm also talking about your emotional life and your commitments to others and your relationships and your commitments to an institution and [pursuing] excitement and opportunity and possibility."

Each woman she described had reconciled her own multiple roles in a way that suited her, and had found the rewards of business exciting, worthwhile, and indeed vital to her definition of personal success.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.