How Women Handle Success

In his latest book, Find Your Strongest Life, best-selling author Marcus Buckingham set his sights on analyzing what the happiest and most successful women have in common. BusinessWeek invited Buckingham and several dozen readers to an Oct. 7 breakfast at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of BusinessWeek for a panel discussion with four top female executives. The panelists, all of whom have been successful in managing their own careers while also helping foster a culture of leadership within their companies, were Andrea Wong, CEO of Lifetime Networks; Geralyn Breig, president for North America at Avon Products (AVP); Susan Peters, chief learning officer at General Electric (GE); and Billie Williamson, inclusiveness officer for the Americas at Ernst & Young. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Geralyn, when you took a job at Godiva in Europe, you had three young kids. What went through your head as you thought about how you were going to handle it?

GERALYN BREIG: I was hot to get a general management job, but at Campbell there weren't that many. Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell (CPB), had seen me operate and offered me the job of president of Godiva International. The pitch was: "You can continue to live in Connecticut, but your office will be in Belgium, and you'll have other offices in Tokyo and Hong Kong." I sat down with my husband, and we figured we could do anything for a year. Our agreement was if at the end of the year it was hurting the marriage or the family, I'd bail out. We didn't tell the boss that.

BUCKINGHAM: Did you ever question the choice?

BREIG: Well, I'm going to tell you the dirty little secret about the role. The first year, it was a relief to get a break from three children under 9. When you get into Business Class on a 12-hour flight to Tokyo and people are bringing you drinks and warm nuts, it is not a bad thing. I was able to collect my thoughts and stretch myself personally. The second year, I was able to be more effective, and by the third year I knew it was time to come home.

BUCKINGHAM: Andrea, you're leading a company in a town that is well-known for being connected. Talk to us about how you have built the relationships you need to succeed in Hollywood.

ANDREA WONG: You have this assumption that if you just put your head down and work, you will be rewarded for it. Relationships are critical, whether it's in your business or across adjacent businesses. They may not directly impact you immediately, but three years or five years later they come into play in some way, shape, or form.

BUCKINGHAM: Some people say women today simply face too many domains in life in which they're supposed to excel. Susan, does that square with your experience?

SUSAN PETERS: I know you've all done this, where you're writing the list of what you have to get done for Thanksgiving dinner while the colleague next to you is making the big presentation. You have to discipline your mind to stay where you are and stay in the moment. I would argue that our male colleagues are in the moment, and if we're not, that's a huge disadvantage.

BUCKINGHAM: There's been a fair amount of research done on multitasking of late, and it turns out that men are not very good at it. It turns out women are terrible, too. When you multitask, your brain is actually concentrating on flitting from one task to another. Your functioning IQ drops 10 points. You're supposed to do things in series. It speaks to finding a balance. Billie, has that been a life goal of yours?

BILLIE WILLIAMSON: You probably ought to just throw that word out of your vocabulary, because it doesn't really exist. You have to decide what is most important. My daughter's pictures are not in those nice little scrapbooks. They're in a big old box, and someday I'll get around to those scrapbooks, or I'll give them to her in the box. Life is made up of stages, so there are times when you focus on your job, and there are times when you have to focus on your family. Overall, they even out. I can pretty much outsource anything except caring for my family. All of my holiday shopping is done on the Internet, generally at 10 or 11 at night. Growing up, you could have eaten off of the floor at my mother's house. Please do not do that at my house. It's hazardous to your health.

BUCKINGHAM: When you ask men what they think will help them achieve greater success in life--leveraging their strengths or fixing their weaknesses--men are at 50/50. If you ask women, 27% say "build on my strengths," and 73% say "fix my weaknesses." Women probably spend more time thinking about what they need to fix, and that probably plays into how assertively you walk into a salary negotiation or promotion.

PETERS: I have found that when men are going to leave the company, they go in and say: "I've got this other offer," and they really are expecting that there will be a counteroffer. When women decide to resign, they've decided to resign.

BUCKINGHAM: What's one piece of advice you would give young women?

BREIG: A lot of women are afraid that as they move up and take on more responsibility, it gets harder and harder to have balance. The thing I've learned is, while I have more responsibility, I also have much more control over my schedule.

WILLIAMSON: You need to build relationships with the people above you, your peers, and the people who work for you. I knew to build them with the people who worked for me, and I just sort of assumed they would be there with my peers and superiors. But they weren't. You absolutely must take time every day to build relationships with people all around you.

WONG: Take time to manage your own career. It is not going to happen for you. Also, my two favorite things to say are "yes" and "thank you." The more that you can use those two words, the better.

For a book excerpt, and more from women leaders, go to

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