The career advice we need to pass down to our daughters

There is an important but rarely mentioned factor in the skills and capabilities women need to be successful in their careers, and it’s the career advice many women have never been given.

My essential advice to help women reach their full potential in business is to develop and demonstrate business and financial savvy, also known as commercial awareness.

Whilst having excellent communication, people development and team building skills are vitally important leadership strengths, these are skills women frequently have in abundance. And if this was all there was to it, women would be represented in higher numbers at the top of organisations, whereas the reality is that even though some 46% of middle managers are female, approximately only half this figure reach senior management levels.

It’s not much better news for future female entrepreneurs either. There is a funding gap affecting women wanting to set up their own business with start-ups run solely by men far more likely to get funding than all-female teams, and female start-ups receiving less than 1p in every £1 of venture capital investment. At this rate of progress (or lack of), it will take 25 years for all-women teams to even get 10% of the investment available.

Susan Colantuono in an excellent Ted Talk described the lack of business and financial acumen as the missing 33% of the leadership skills that women need to succeed. If we want our daughters and our daughters’ daughters to reach the top of their chosen career, it’s vital they develop commerciality, and develop it as early as possible in their careers.

I wrote my dissertation on commerciality in women and through this highlighted that traditional leadership training programmes were designed and written around the requirements of male managers, focusing heavily on the people management side as this was the area that it was understood that new and existing managers most needed to develop.

However as this training was designed around male not female managers, it often meant that female managers received training in areas in which they were already potentially strong, i.e. people management, but didn’t receive the training needed to support the development of their commercial and business awareness. This left female managers less able and less confident in the commercial side of a business and less inclined to embrace this area, preferring to demonstrate their strengths in good people management and team building etc.

Furthermore, most career-guidance publications aimed at women do not mention the importance of developing commercial skills. Guidance instead tends to suggests other areas that women need to be more effective in to achieve career development, such as building a strong business network or clearly communicating their accomplishments and ambitions within the workplace, but very little on the need to develop commercial acumen.

There is also evidence about how much more women need to demonstrate their commercial awareness than men. The evidence pointed to significant differences when senior managers interviewed male and female colleagues for a position with female applicants facing far more questions relating to business and financial matters than their male colleagues. The evidence showed that hiring managers expected male applicants to have commercial understanding and treated this as a given but didn’t expect this in female applicants. Hence the need for women to clearly demonstrate they have this knowledge.

Commercial awareness is like any business practice we learn, but women have traditionally not been supported with training or opportunities to develop this area, and it has to be said, have often not sought support to develop it. And that is where I believe there is vast potential for change.

So the career advice that we need to give our daughters is to “get business savvy!”  We know they will make great team leaders and people engagers, have excellent communication skills and high levels of emotional intelligence, but without showing a strong business-head they may be missing the 33% of leadership skills needed to reach their full potential.

We need to encourage young women to embrace the financial and profitability side of business, not shy away from it, to appreciate early on what it takes to make money in business, how to track it, balance it, develop strategy and manage the costs.  I believe by encouraging these skills early on, we’ll be giving women the tools to reach their full potential.


(Photo courtesy of Amy Hirschi on Unsplash)