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Is there a secret formula some women know that propels them to the top?

Over the past six years, Joanna Barsh, senior partner at for management consultancy McKinsey & Co. in New York, and her co-researcher, McKinsey organization consultant Susie Cranston, set out to find out. They interviewed 107 women who have reached the tops of their professions, "in fields from business to orchestra conducting to espionage," Ms. Barsh says. And they found some common ingredients that they identify in their new book, How Remarkable Women Lead.

Wallace Immen spoke with Ms. Barsh. Here are excerpts of their conversation:

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What consistent threads did you find in the success stories that remarkable women tell?

One of the crucial consistencies is that each of them said they made a commitment early in their career to find personal satisfaction from what they do. About 20 per cent of the women said they knew even when they were children that a career in business would make them happiest.

I came into the study with the preconception that maybe the women who make it big just have an easier time of it, or that maybe they have better luck. But, as it turns out, every one of them had to overcome obstacles and find ways to turn difficult situations around. They all had a turning point that could have made them quit, but they persisted and moved on after adversity struck. When they experienced failure, they were able to see opportunity in the setback.

What was the most common obstacle they had to overcome?

More than 60 per cent of the women said they didn't naturally have the confidence to speak up for themselves early in their career, and they had to gain that confidence to succeed. Recurring themes were that, starting out, they held back because they didn't feel they had anything important to say, or they believed that, since they were in a junior position, it was not their place to insist that their viewpoint be heard.

But most told of a breakthrough moment in which either something they should have said but didn't led to a failure, or they were given the floor by a senior person and made a contribution that led to a success. From then on, they made a conscious decision to make their voice heard - and to insist that others they lead speak up as well.

For example, Shelly Lazarus [former chief executive officer of ad firm Ogilvy & Mather and now chairwoman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide] said she had that insight early in her career. Another woman she worked with asked her to cover for her while she snuck out of the office to see her child's school play. She told the woman to come right out and tell her manager she was taking off. At that point, she realized that, "if you have to be afraid for who you are, you will be afraid all your life."

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From then on, she said, her motto has been: "Just stand up, do what you need to do and smile about it. Look them in the eye and say, "If you don't like it, fire me, and I'll find another job, because I'm talented enough and I'm committed enough.' "

You also found that women had to break free of limiting expectations that others may have about what are appropriate occupations for women.

Because there were so few women in leadership in previous decades, many of the leaders said they had been regularly advised to give up the dream of reaching senior positions.

Ann Moore [chief executive officer and chairwoman of Time Inc.]told me that, from childhood, her mother expected her to be a nurse, like every other woman in their family. But her mother was also a great organizer for her church and a local political committee, and she [Ms. Moore]realized she really wanted to lead, and that her strength and interests were in guiding teams.

She said she stuck to her goal of reaching top management, even to the point where early in her career she decided to turn down a promotion to a production function because "it would have been the wrong fit." Her refusal made her superiors furious, and she said the decision kept her stalled in the same job for several years, but ultimately she found her way into the role she really wanted. As for those angry bosses? "They are not here now and I am," she said.

Is there a process by which women gain the courage to take more risks?

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Another consistent thread in the stories women told is that they were prone to be risk-averse. Psychological research shows that when women are under stress, their brains are more prone than men to dredge up memories of past failures and emotional wounds, and they are more likely than men to withdraw, rather than risking another failure.

Many of the women we spoke with said they had learned to consciously reframe stressful situations by using basic techniques such as talking back to the voice of fear in their head or looking at opportunities to find alternatives and move ahead, rather than remaining frozen in indecision.

An example is Ellyn McColgan [until recently, president of the wealth management division of Morgan Stanley] She said her insight came in 1992, when a team she was leading at a previous financial group had a large loss and she was given 90 days to turn the situation around. She was terrified about taking risks but she kept in mind: "What is the worst thing that can happen? ...I might get fired." In that case, she decided: "So what? Go get another job."

That defiant optimism helped her get over her self-doubt and pull the team together, and they got results back on track. "A natural reaction to failure is to be afraid and to get smaller," she told me about what the experience taught her. "But what you should do is get bigger. Failure is an opportunity to grow. ... It might hurt while it's happening, but all things that help you grow hurt."

I was amazed at how all the top women leaders seemed to see opportunity everywhere. They have learned that when you aren't obsessed about what could go wrong, it's more easy to find opportunities and ideas for making things come out right.

Did the women feel they had an advantage over their male colleagues?

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Most women have an inherent strength in a behaviour psychologists call "tend and befriend," a desire to help build community and nurture and reduce the level of anxiety and fear. Virtually all of the women concurred that their ability to maintain connections with people in the organization and not burn bridges along the way not only helped them rise to the top but also gave them higher satisfaction ... .

Anne Mulcahy [chairwoman of Xerox Corp.]summed it up by saying, "One of the most important ways to be successful is actually to create an army of people who are rooting for you. It's nice to have the support of the person you work for, or a board, but the most important support you can get is from the troops."

And what do they say about helping others to succeed?

Many of the women whose rise to the top came in the 1980s and 1990s did not have mentors and they say they wish they did have someone to help open up opportunities and help them through the corporate maze.

Because of that, many of them talked about taking the effort to help sponsor a young protégé, helping open doors and push them through if they are reluctant to go. They confide that often these are women who they think of as a younger version of themselves.

While it can take a commitment of time to act as the equivalent of a personal trainer, several of the leaders said they have found it very rewarding.

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