Having spent more than two decades in the finance industry, I have become well-versed in navigating change and uncertainty. In today’s fast-paced and volatile business landscape, the role of the CFO has undergone significant transformations. CFOs are no longer limited to financial reporting and compliance tasks: rather, they have emerged as strategic partners, actively driving organizational growth and sustainability.


With this increasing uncertainty and complexity, it has become crucial for CFOs, especially women in this position, to cultivate resilience as a guiding principle. Resilience means adapting to challenges, recognizing opportunities where others see only obstacles, prioritizing results, and making decisions one step at a time. In this context, it’s the actions we take in the present that truly matter, and resilience is built by being pragmatic and making decisions about matters that are under your control while being prepared to react fast when reality differs from what is expected.


As women in business, we must stay focused and deliver consistently, even in a changing environment, despite the additional obstacles we face. There is an opportunity for women to redefine the CFO role within an organization, expanding our influence to create a lasting legacy that promotes positive change in vital domains like sustainability, digital transformation, a finance workforce prepared for the future, and global female leadership. We must not just accept change but also drive and create it. This presents us with an opportunity to make a positive impact and shape the future and, at the same time, our own careers, paving the way to the C-suite.


Three Strategies for Women


Bias and discrimination are two major obstacles for women aiming to reach the C-suite. They aren’t unique to women in business; we’ve all experienced them at one time or another. Through persistence, and a few missteps, I’ve learned three key lessons that have helped me navigate tumultuous business environments and always keep moving forward. The following are three strategies for women to help them overcome these challenges as they make their way to the C-suite.


1. Resist being weighed down. As women in leadership, we’re constantly confronted with added burdens that can prevent us from performing at our best. For example, women can be interrupted, talked over, talked down to, or overlooked. Microaggressions, comments or actions that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally express a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group, are ever present. These presumably “small slights” can certainly add up to major injustices.


As women, we also sometimes unconsciously add to our burdens by not being able to say no. For example, earlier in my career, I took on every task at work that was handed to me, even when I didn’t have sufficient resources to complete them. I just kept working more and working harder. Instead, I should have asked why I was the one who needed to take care of the tasks and should have been clear about the resources that I required to move forward with them, or I could have thrown that extra weight off completely by simply saying no.


We can’t control others’ behavior, but we can control our reactions to it. We can choose assertiveness, pushing back until we’re heard, or we can refuse to internalize other people’s negative behaviors and attitudes toward us. We can fight, boldly and courageously, our cultural conditioning and be role models for other women and girls, and we can choose to believe in ourselves.


2. Actively pursue professional development. Like many women, I’ve found it difficult and uncomfortable to talk openly about my achievements. My experiences have taught me that I can’t afford to wait for company leadership to take notice. Furthermore, the time to start self-promoting begins long before achieving the end goal. We can gain much more traction by selling our work-in-progress. It’s up to women to open their own doors in order to advance in their organizations.


One of the biggest game changers in my career was hearing Ursula Egli, CFO of Julius Baer Deutschland, at European Women in Finance 2019. She explained that women are more often considered for tasks that mend or maintain the business, but not for those that innovate or raise our profile with company leadership. Those projects tend to be assigned to men who then leverage them into promotions. This showed me how important it is to pursue my professional development in order to advance my career.


A study by Harvard Business Review found that women received 44% more requests to volunteer (for non-promotable work) than men in mixed-sex groups; the gender of the manager didn’t make a difference. Women also say “yes” 25% more often. It’s a prevailing issue that’s sparked a new movement, The No Club, to empower women to “make savvy decisions about the work they take on.” Since becoming aware of this issue, if a task falls outside of the scope of my work, I’ve learned first to consider if it will help me gain professional visibility or build relationships. If not, I am more likely to say no.


Similarly, I’ve learned to always think ahead to the next steps in my career and strategically plan my own professional development. What are the skills that will future-proof my work? What courses or certifications will ensure my success as I level up? For me, this has involved investing my personal time and money to upskill and complete development programs. Waiting for our companies to invest in our career advancement can further delay our progress. Women need to be one step ahead if we want to break through the glass ceiling.


3. Set up a network. A strong network can help women advance more quickly toward the C-suite. I’ve benefited tremendously from developing a professional network of women and men who have consistently given me sound advice and supported me. Early in my career, I was fortunate to have a male manager who added me to an invitation-only professional development program. When he cracked open the door of opportunity, I was able to push it even wider for myself by securing a management position in the company. Being at the top is not all about skills and performance: It’s also about developing your influence. The higher up the ladder you go, the more instrumental your network becomes.


Finally, when an opportunity presents itself, we need to be ready and willing to seize it and also to shape it to make it work. This isn’t the moment to be shy; it’s the moment to show courage.


My advice for advancing to the C-suite is based on tough lessons that took me 25 years to learn. In sharing my experiences, I hope to help others achieve what I have even faster. It’s our job to lay the groundwork for those women who will come after us. After all, aspiring to the C-suite is the right of any woman who wishes to claim it.

About the Authors