15 powerful women share the personality trait that’s key to their success

March 8, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

One of the goals of International Women’s Day is to celebrate the achievements of women and girls. So, as we mark this year’s holiday, it seemed appropriate to turn to some of the highest achieving women in the business world—the executives who comprise Fortune‘s annual Most Powerful Women list. Below, 15 of those leaders told us about the personality trait they credit for helping launching them into the C-suite—and share their advice for women who hope to follow in their footsteps.

Marillyn Hewson, Chairman, President, and CEO, Lockheed Martin 

A focus on effective communication—and it all starts with the ability to really listen. Listening to your customers leads to a customer-focused vision. And listening to those you lead creates a climate of understanding and trust. By focusing on consistent and effective communication, leaders can also more quickly identify those times when it is critical to step forward and reach out directly to customers, shareholders, or employees. Simply put, effective communication is the engine for effective leadership and effective decision making at every level.

Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President, and CEO, IBM 

Be curious. A constant thirst to learn has served me well my entire career, especially in the tech industry. We’ve always hired for curiosity at IBM. We receive 7,000 job applications a day, and our managers and HR teams are geared to look for people who are curious and committed to constantly advancing what they know.

Gail Boudreaux, President and CEO, Anthem 

My strong focus on leadership has been a large part of my success to date. I believe the ability to build and inspire teams is critical and that individuals and organizations can accomplish extraordinary results when they leverage the power of their collective strength working together.

Julie Sweet, CEO, Accenture 

Openness: starting with my decision to learn Chinese and live in Taiwan and China in 1987 and 1988, before it was commonplace. I have often pursued paths that were not well-trodden. It has helped me become a continuous learner and to understand that it is often from unexpected sources and places that you learn the most.

Judith McKenna, President and CEO, Walmart International 

It must be somewhere between curiosity and always focusing on people. Both are really important, and I really believe that if we always keep our associates, our people, at the heart of everything we do, and build out strong teams, then we’ll continue to make our business successful.

Amy Hood, EVP and CFO, Microsoft 

I’m pretty gritty. I can work through most things and come out on the other side feeling like I’ve learned a good lesson and I’ll get better.

Ann Marie Campbell, EVP, U.S. Stores, Home Depot 

I think in any industry, and especially in retail, it’s crucial to be able to build emotional connections and motivate others. When I was working in the stores, I was fortunate to have a mentor who saw my potential and helped me realize what I could accomplish. I try my best to do the same for our associates, whether they’re working in the stores or in one of our Store Support Centers.

Vicki Hollub, President and CEO, Occidental Petroleum 

Being competitive, but team-oriented—I want my teams, I want Occidental to win. That means continuously challenging every Occidental employee to look for the most efficient and effective ways to get top results. It’s a culture and an attitude of not settling that values innovation, collaboration, and continuous improvement.

Pam Nicholson, Former President and CEO, Enterprise Holdings 

I personally believe there is no one personality type that determines success in today’s complex business environment. That said, being open to professional feedback is universally beneficial for everyone, regardless of their title or field. As a result, I asked three fellow CEOs for their thoughts and help in figuring out what traits have helped me the most in my own career. Their responses ranged from “honest,” “genuine” and “strong work ethic,” to “positive” and “inclusive,” which means I tend to be pretty straightforward and collaborative on most days. But I am particularly proud that my reputation is based on trust and integrity—something that has enabled me to confidently make tough decisions at Enterprise for more than 37 years.

Leanne Caret, President and CEO, Defense, Space & Security, and EVP, Boeing 

I love being authentic and letting people see the real me. That hopefully creates an environment where we are all in it together.

Beth Ford, President and CEO, Land O’Lakes 

I’d say it’s a combination of intellectual curiosity and a love of people. Asking questions, then really listening to the answers is key in people-intensive businesses like mine. When I hire people, I make sure they have that appreciation of people as well.

Jennifer Taubert, EVP, Worldwide Chairman, Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson

I think two qualities have been critical in my career: optimism and perseverance. Optimism because I believe in stretching and redefining the boundaries of what’s possible. Perseverance because, with determination, you can overcome any obstacle to do the right thing for patients. 

Michele Buck, President and CEO, Hershey 

Being a great listener has long been one of my hallmark leadership qualities. I find immense value in seeking diverse perspectives when I’m making an important business decision. I want to hear from people who are deep in the organization, closest to the work, as well as those outside the decision domain who may see things a bit differently. As a leader, it’s important to set direction and impart your knowledge to others; but, you have to balance that with listening to the expertise and point of views of those around you. Intentional listening, and the learning associated with that, has undoubtedly been key to my success. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to weigh the perspectives of those around me with my north star. Then, I listen to my gut, which to me isn’t just natural instinct, it’s been built through years of experience, successes, failures, and everything in between.

Mary Dillon, CEO, Ulta Beauty 

Curiosity and empathy. I told my children as they were growing up to always ask other people about themselves, to be curious to learn about others and to respect their journey. At Ulta Beauty, this is the way we do business. We have a deep curiosity about our guests and their needs, and we treat associates with the respect they deserve. We believe these values are helping us win customer loyalty.

Bridget van Kralingen, SVP Blockchain, Industry Platforms, Accounts, and Partnerships, IBM

Lead with an intent toward solving, not blaming. Start by always giving everyone, no matter the situation, the benefit of the doubt.


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