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Are women less ambitious? Confessions of a corporate dropout

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At Davos 2013, there was buzz about only 17% of the attendees being women. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg advised women to “lean in” (her book by the same name is coming out in March). She advises women to stop second-guessing themselves and have more confidence in their abilities.

I agree. Except that I see a lot of senior-level women who are corporate drop-outs actually leaning in. They are leaning in to their purpose, their power, and their authenticity.

Many senior-level women (global general managers, division presidents) have spent their careers leaning into the corporate ladder, and now they are leaning into career paths that feel more authentic. One I recently spoke to summed it up perfectly. She says she’s very driven, just not very ambitious. I got exactly what she meant, and it should be a wake-up call for corporate America.

I am a Fortune 500 corporate dropout. I was successful, had great sponsors (most good men and good leaders) who took chances to promote me. I had P&L responsibility, international assignments, C-suite roles, the kinds of experiences that dream careers are made of. I decided to leave corporate America after a 20-year career. Does this make me less ambitious? Yes, less ambitious to climb the corporate ladder but more driven to pursue a life that is so much more than climbing the corporate ladder.

Are women less ambitious?

There is a perception that women are less ambitious. It’s even corroborated with data. In an SHL study, men and women leaders were asked, “If anything were possible, would I choose to advance to C-level management?” Men were twice as likely as women to say yes (36% vs. 18%). If anything were possible, why would only 1 in 5 women want to advance to C-level management, half the level of men? McKinsey separately interviewed 200 women in top executive positions. About 41% aspired to the C-suite, but 59% didn’t.

We are drowning in data about how greater gender diversity in senior executive teams and on boards delivers bottom-line impact to companies. Well-intentioned companies and CEOs try to retain these women, with limited results. Some of it is organizational glass ceilings — unconscious biases that still exist. Some is the glass ceiling inside the heads of women — what Sheryl Sandberg talks about when she asks us to “lean in.” Yet there is a midcareer cliff where women who have traditionally “leaned in” are leaving corporate America at twice the rate of men.

They don’t do it to stay at home. They start companies. They get on boards. They do community work. “What?” you say. “Give up the opportunity to have more money, power, stock options, take the corporate jet to meetings? What are they thinking?”

While individual reasons vary, my suspicion is that our friend Abraham Maslow may be the culprit. In his famous hierarchy of needs, Maslow showed that once our basic needs are fulfilled (physical, safety, social, self-esteem) we reach for self-actualization — the opportunity to fulfill our authentic leadership potential. You might ask, “Why can’t women self-actualize in corporate America?” You might also ask, “Don’t the guys want to self-actualize, too?”

What makes women different?

The key factor that drives this difference is the incongruence between what motivates women to become leaders versus the perceptions of the C-suite.

The data indicates that the C-suite is dominated by those who are driven by power and fear of failure, while women tend to be motivated by constructive working conditions, recognition for their work and achievements, and the opportunity to make an impact.

McKinsey’s study found that “[w]omen often elect to remain in jobs if they derive a deep sense of meaning professionally. More than men, women prize the opportunity to pour their energies into making a difference and working closely with colleagues. Women don’t want to trade that joy for what they fear will be energy-draining meetings and corporate politics at the next management echelon.” According to McKinsey’s interviews, senior-level women aspire to be more authentic and values-based than their perception of the C-suite: “When you see it up close, it’s not clean at the top. Motives are not always enterprise related. It’s more about personal agendas.”

Women define success more broadly. It’s not just about the next position in the hierarchy. It’s about contribution to something they personally care about.

Stories of the C-suite dropouts

The personal stories I hear of women are consistent with the data above. One woman leader who ran an $11 billion business in a male-dominated industry opted out because being in the role “just wasn’t much fun anymore.” She wanted to be intellectually challenged by taking on more board seats, make a broader impact in her community, and be able to have flexibility to be with her son, who was leaving for college in a couple of years. She may go back to corporate America, but she will do it on her own terms.

Another woman, an executive coaching client, runs a multibillion-dollar division and doesn’t want her boss’ job. She believes that she will have to change who she is (to conform to the “politics” of the role) and she’s tired of the constant adapting she has had to do in her 20-plus-year career. She’s energized by motivating, leading and growing people across her business and perceives that taking on her boss’s job will take her away from the impact and legacy she desires.

Another friend left a senior banking role after 25 years and a track record of success. A merger gave her the opportunity to opt-in for a golden handshake. The financial freedom wasn’t the driver; it was the enabler. She found her role evolving to a job with less freedom to do what was right for her customers or exercise her strengths. She also saw many of her sponsors leave during the transition and no longer felt like a valued part of the team that had built the organization. Is she at home taking care of the babies and enjoying cucumber sandwiches? No, she’s now the CEO of a prominent nonprofit, tackling some of the biggest challenges she’s had in her career, and loving it.

Another recent visible corporate dropout is Shona Brown, a senior vice president at Google. She opted out of the fast track five years ago to do outside board work (she’s on the board of Pepsi) and also to run In December, she announced she’s leaving Google to pursue consulting work to advise “social entrepreneurs and regular entrepreneurs on all the challenges of growth. … People are the most important thing. Integrity is as important as brilliance.” She’s also engaged.

My story reflects some of the same motivations. I left a 20-year corporate career to start a company that helps leaders realize their transformational potential. I get to devote 100% of my time to areas where I want to have an impact and leave a legacy. I am energized by utilizing my skill sets and innate talents, many of which were dormant in my corporate roles.

I am energized by the challenges of being an entrepreneur. There are no politics to deal with. When I want to try something new, I don’t have to do a single PowerPoint presentation. I’m certainly not working fewer hours, but I work more flexibly. I make more of the Zumba classes I love and participate in nonprofit board work that fuels me — something I never made time for in my corporate career. I am not earning as much as I was, but I pay my bills, and the psychic income more than makes up for the six-figure stock options. I feel like I grow, learn, develop and contribute every day. In my book, that’s a pretty good definition of fulfilling my needs for self-actualization.

What’s the solution for organizations?

To retain senior-level women, CEOs need to be willing to rethink why and how we do business.

  • Change the perception and culture of the C-suite.
  • Understand the contributions they are most personally inspired to make.
  • Ask about other aspirations beyond work and help create the space for these.
  • Help them feel like they are a valued part of a trusted high-performance team.
  • Re-envision success for organizations — not just in bottom-line results but also in contribution to society.
  • Rethink decision-making to make it more participative and collaborative.
  • Rethink how careers are planned — from a top-down to a customized approach.
  • Rethink standardized incentive systems to appeal to personal motivations.

All this is good for women. It’s also critical for all constituents in the organization (diverse talent, millennials and men, too). We need to make it personal.

What’s the solution for women?

We need to help women leaders get clear about their authentic leadership so they can find the right fit for expressing their talents and potential. We want to ensure they proactively engage in discussions with CEOs rather than make decisions based on perceptions and assumptions.

Both tasks are important. It’s where I want to make my contributions to smarter, socially conscious and prosperous workplaces. My personal mission is for leaders to find their calling in their work so that leaders and organizations are transformed.

Does this make me less ambitious? You decide.

Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership, a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. As a former C-suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful and deeply engaged and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam on Twitter and on her blog.