How to invest in your career: identifying and overcoming barriers to accelerate your leadership journey

Dr Suzanne Ross is a leading executive coach, founder of 2thrive and Women Trailblazers, and principal lecturer at Nottingham Business School.  An expert in leadership talent, success and derailment, she explores in this blog how we can identify our strengths and bring them to work; recognise some of the traps that can hold women back; and navigate barriers for ongoing success.


This blog is based on a free coaching webinar that Dr Ross kindly provided to our network of women in energy to mark International Women’s Day 2024 and its UN theme ‘invest in women: accelerate change’.


In 2008, at the height of the economic crisis and sole parent to three boys, I decided to make a life change, leave my job in Talent Management and Leadership Development for a global company and set up my own business. I was also headhunted by Nottingham Business School to do a doctorate in leadership talent, success and derailment. I was curious to understand:  what does it mean to be talented as a leader and why do some go on to be successful while others plateau, fail or derail?


Through research I bring an evidence base to this topic, to challenge some of the myths about what women should (or shouldn’t) do to get on. This often translates as ‘be more male’ which isn’t helpful and ignores the strengths women bring to leadership.


So here  are some practical actions women can take to overcome career barriers and accelerate their journeys into leadership.


Let’s talk about success


One thing that holds women back, is a reluctance to talk about our successes. We might gloss over them and move quickly on, minimise them, or wait for others to acknowledge them. Advice to women is often to ‘be more confident’ rather than communicating the  value and the positive impact they bring to a role, the team and the organisation.  Learning how to convey our successes is important for career conversations, interviews and influencing stakeholders.


Firstly, work out what success means to you and what your success formula is. If you were to bottle it and label it, what accomplishments would it contain? Take stock of this regularly to understand not just what has got you where you are now but to identify any overplayed strengths that might not be useful (or enough) for the next step on your journey.


Next, think about the evidence you can use to communicate these accomplishments, as this impacts perception of value. How do these achievements relate to key business performance metrics (e.g., revenue, sales, profit), contribute to organisational objectives, or improve efficiency and effectiveness? Translate subjective measures such as building a team or mentoring others into the tangible results obtained.


Articulating clear evidence of your value can also help in dealing with any feelings of imposter phenomenon.


Finally, put all this into a master CV for yourself that you update regularly. You could call it your “I’m amazing” file! And it doesn’t need to be shaped or tidied, it’s just your dumping ground to record everything that is going well for you, your successes, your capabilities and knowledge, ready for you to draw on when the need arises.


Alongside this, do a simple SWOT analysis – capture what you are good at, what you’re not so good at (and therefore need to mitigate), what the opportunities to progress or consolidate are and what might stop you getting this. You could use the job description for the next role you want as the context.


What else is holding us back?


Being honest in recognising our weaknesses or unhelpful behaviours helps us address them. According to Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith, in their book How Women Rise, there are certain habits that hold women back – from overvaluing the need for expertise in a leadership role and failing to enlist allies and leverage relationships, to focussing too much on the detail of the day job and pleasing others, rather than progressing their career.


Here are some strategies for overcoming these barriers:

  • Get comfortable with not having specialist knowledge. The more senior you become, the more it’s about your leadership skills rather than technical competency.


  • Create a stakeholder map to identify who the people are who are important in your career. How interested are they in what you are trying to do? Those that are interested and influential are potential allies – keep them close and be clear of your ‘ask’ (i.e. what do you need from them?). Then, who are the people who aren’t interested in what you do but are really influential? How can you communicate the value you bring?


  • Keep the need to build relationships on your radar. Working from home makes networking more difficult, so use employee working groups, stay visible on LinkedIn and make connections, and check who is liking your posts, as they are potential allies. Or just try asking a senior colleague for some time in their diary to have a chat – people are usually open to this and generous with advice.


  • Put your career progression ahead of your day job. The business of life means that we get pulled in lots of different directions – make sure that what you are doing is moving you to where you want to be.


  • Avoid the ‘disease to please’, or saying yes when you would like to say no. Learn how to say no in the right way, such as saying ‘not now’.


Becoming a woman of influence


Bringing people with you by developing your influencing and coaching skills will have a positive impact on your leadership career. But it’s not just about influencing ‘skills’ – it’s about being a woman of influence, knowing and communicating your value.


I’ll leave you with these seven summary tips for becoming an effective woman of influence:

  1. Know what success means to you, which provides a sense of purpose and meaning in what you do
  2. Carry out an honest evaluation of your achievements: get feedback from others
  3. Make your contributions visible
  4. Communicate the value you add
  5. Know the talent you bring to the team
  6. Share success stories
  7. Be authentic


To find out more about Dr Suzanne Ross’s work and courses, connect with her on LinkedIn


Look out for Suzanne’s next blog for POWERful Women:  ‘The double bind: how leadership stereotypes penalise women and the power of behavioural flexibility’