February 2017 | 

Women’s Executive Leadership: Strategies, Confidence, Connections

Women Business Leaders

Lisa Larson, an associate vice president at engineering consulting firm HDR, has spent her entire career working in a male-dominated field. When she enrolled in Wharton’s Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success, she wasn’t sure if her work experiences would help her connect with participants in other types of fields. But Larson says she was “surprised how much I have in common with successful women from around the world, with very different backgrounds and from very different industries.”

She says she chose the program specifically to be in their company, strengthening her business acumen and leadership skills in a unique environment. Women’s Executive Leadership explores new research on women in leadership; offers the latest knowledge and best practices in finance, marketing, innovation, and management; and provides tools and coaching for honing specific strategic skills. As researchers continue to provide more evidence-based knowledge about tackling gender differences associated with women leaders, Wharton management professor and director of the program Nancy Rothbard says it is essential that Wharton share that knowledge with women who are ascending the corporate ladder.

For Larson, some of the most important sessions centered on negotiations. Recent research shows that men tend to negotiate more than women, with one study finding that 52 percent of men negotiated their starting salary as opposed to 13 percent of women. The trend continues throughout their careers: men initiate salary negotiations more frequently. This gender gap isn’t because women aren’t good negotiators — in fact, the opposite is true. But a range of factors, including a disdain for conflict, often prevents women from engaging.

“Every woman should know this information,” says Larson. “Nancy made it clear that women are really good negotiators. We don’t necessarily go to the table first, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t good at it. We just don’t always look out for opportunities to negotiate.”

The program provides personal feedback about individual negotiating styles, and stresses that embracing that style and being more authentic during negotiations is more effective than trying to act differently. Larson says she also learned how to put negotiations in perspective and develop a different mindset about them. “When I am negotiating, it’s not just for me. I never thought about it that way before — I’m doing it for those who work for me and depend on me.”  Since taking this program, she has noted that she is more confident in all types of negotiations, from smaller day-to-day encounters to larger career-changing events.

Larson also cites the time spent in small groups as highly beneficial. “We were able to share some of our current challenges, talk about how we were going to apply what we are learning, and get feedback from executive coaches and each other. For me, I was able to gain confidence about a plan I developed for a new area of business.”

"Ultimately, though, it is the connections that participants make during their week in Women’s Executive Leadership that provide some of the greatest dividends. It’s not unusual for most if not all of the attendees to keep in touch after the program, offering networking, feedback, and support. Larson, who has also attended Global Strategic Leadership and The Leadership Edge: Strategies for the New Leader, says, “Wharton’s programs are different because you develop quality relationships. It’s not a business card exchange.

Last fall, I traveled to Africa on business and a Wharton colleague connected me with a female CEO of a prominent consulting firm there. When I go back in a couple of weeks, I will meet with her again. Women from the program have also connected me with their colleagues and family members, and I now have a broad international network. There are so many places in the world I feel confident I could go to, reach out to a Wharton connection, and in no time have a contact.”