How Women Leaders Find Success and Happiness

Research shows there are five practices that can lead to satisfaction on the job and at home, and they can be mastered by anyone

What makes women happy? Looking at scads of data, some pundits say: "nothing." On a personal journey since turning the fated 50, and helped by a talented team at McKinsey, I also pursued the answer. Five years later our research has helped us begin to understand the secret sauce: why most successful women are not only great at work, but also great in life.

We've spent those five years talking to more than 100 remarkable women around the world who've sustained, for the most part, families, as well as leadership careers in fields from business to orchestra conducting to espionage—and who usually wake up every morning profoundly content with the choices they've made. Out of those interviews and reams of other research, we've found five practices that make all the difference when combined, and the good news is these factors are all under our control.

One of the crucial ways the amazing women we met stand out from the crowd is that they do things they find meaningful. Some women know from a young age what makes them happy, and pursue it from early on, such as a Nigerian lawyer who as a child was inspired by a TV show and never wavered until she founded her own law firm.

Engagement and Energy

For many other women, simply figuring out what makes them happy can unleash the passion for a new path, as in the case of a young consultant who made a tough decision to abandon the lucrative career her parents wanted her to pursue in favor of filmmaking. A third woman simply realized one day the business she had been turning around for the past six years did indeed stir her passions for work and fulfill her with regard to work.

Like the other women we met, these three found that having a passion gave them the courage to become people who make things happen instead of waiting for others to change their lives. And taking that step, crossing that line, is a real energizer. And we saw that this engagement and energy carries over from work to home and back, making both more satisfying.

Another way these remarkable women are different: They are able to see opportunity in setbacks. They are not wearing rose-colored glasses—they are realists with the capability to diagnose the facts and take action. Much psychological research underscores that women tend to experience emotions more at the extreme than men do, with the result that adversity can lead to feelings of failure. But it's possible to stop that emotional downward spiral consciously and address whatever the problem really is. One CEO at a company suffering performance decline "fired herself" one Friday night and consciously went to work as the new CEO on Monday—and that attitude helped her lead the turnaround effectively.

Deeper Connections

The capacity to experience emotions, in fact, can be one of women's biggest strengths at home and at work. Successful female leaders are connected to other people—not just having a professional network, though that's important—and they find that the deeper relationships give them a feeling of belonging. Even better, recognizing the role of the people around them both reinforces and accelerates their personal growth.

Our recent survey of more than 1,000 female executives at all levels shows that people who focus on these practices say they're both more satisfied and more successful than others. On average, the top half (those who say they've mastered any of the five practices we've described above) have a far greater likelihood of achieving success in three important outcomes: passion for work, effectiveness as a leader, and satisfaction in life. And when those women put four or five of the practices to work, they have an almost sure bet for success.

Particularly in today's economy, anyone aspiring to lead ought to seek out the right stuff of these remarkable women—be them, recruit them, retain them. These practices are a self-reinforcing map of capabilities that guides leadership behavior and action: building on meaning and strength, framing and reframing situations to find the best solutions, harnessing the power of inclusiveness and full engagement, and actively managing energy flows. The women we met are stronger and happier for taking ownership of their own paths—and any other person, male or female, can begin to do the same despite the uncertainty, randomness, and daily stress of these interesting times.

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