Maureen Berkner Boyt

Whether they’re CEOs, presidents, or prime ministers, most powerful women share a set of common behaviors and traits that that have made them successful. We all know the basics: focus, delegate, have a sponsor, and take some risks. But I want to share some of the more nuanced secrets of success I’ve observed over my years of studying many a powerful woman. Here are five of my favorites:

1. They pursue their passion and don’t hide their smarts.

Many powerful women find themselves in the “first woman” role at their companies (or countries), like Melinda Gates and Angela Merkel did. Gates was one of the first women in a technical role at Microsoft, and Merkel was the first female chancellor of Germany. They both pursued degrees that interested them, entered fields that allowed them to work at what they loved, and excelled in their roles. That formula is standard for powerful women. They do what fuels their fire and they own their brilliance. They’re not worried about the occasional fragile male egos they encounter along the way or entering fields or organizations where the majority of the other players are men.

2. “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

That was Gates’ reply when she was asked to give young women one of the secrets to her success. Powerful women know that to succeed, you’re going to have to get out of your comfort zone. All. The. Time. There’s a fascinating pattern to powerful women’s trajectories — they are rarely in a known terrain, and it doesn’t bother them much. My son is a fly fishing guide, and I asked him once how he handles being wet and cold most of the time. His reply? “Mom, I’m getting to fish. There’s no place I’d rather be than on the river, and being wet and cold is part of being on the river.” Likewise, being uncomfortable is the rent that powerful women pay to achieve their awesome levels of success. And for any woman in business, that’s a crucial lesson you must learn early on.

3. They have an opinion and are not afraid to share it.

Maggie Kuhn said, “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.” Powerful women have that down in spades. When you watch a powerful woman, you’ll see that they are very comfortable sharing their ideas, whether they’re popular or unpopular ones. They engage in tough conversations, debate fiercely, and challenge the status quo. They are able to switch between masculine and feminine communication styles, which allow their messages and ideas to really be heard as a woman in business. Dr. Audrey Nelson, co-founder of the Organization for Research on Women and Communication, calls this “code switching,” or androgynous communication.

4. They know and rock their superpower.

Rather than trying to blend in, powerful women know that the trick is to actually harness their strengths and differences to stand out. Melinda Gates said it well, "The world doesn't need more people who think and act the same — so resist the temptation to conform to what's around you." Your superpower is the thing that you’re great at, passionate about, and that makes you stand out. If you’re not sure what yours is, ask your friends and colleagues; they’ll likely be able to tell you in a heartbeat. Then your job is to own it and rock it.

5. They’re not chasing their fortune.

When you focus on pursuing your passion, working hard, and actualizing your vision, financial success will happen as a natural byproduct. As Mei Xu, CEO of Pacific Trade International, said: “Follow your passion. Don’t follow the money. The money will come.” If your mind is solely wrapped around getting a slightly bigger raise year after year, you’re not focusing on the big picture. Work hard doing what you love — and when doing so lands you in the position of chief financial officer, president or vice president, or even presidential candidate, you can negotiate your next raise with yourself.

When it comes down to it, the secrets are not so secret. You know what to do, and you’ve got it in you to break through to the top. So follow your own path, dig the discomfort, share your thinking, and shine on.


Mo is the Founder of The Moxie Exchange, a training and peer mentoring organization for companies who want to recruit, develop, promote and retain women and create inclusive workplaces. She’s an advisor to CEOs of the nation’s fastest growing companies and is the founder 5 successful businesses. She also been known to sing loudly, dance badly and curse like a sailor.