A CEO who's worked with Hillary Clinton to mentor 16,000 female leaders across the world reveals 5 habits all women should adopt immediately to get ahead in the workplace

Adrienne Longo PhotographyVital Voices CEO Alyse Nelson.
  • Alyse Nelson, leadership expert and CEO of Vital Voices, has worked with 16,000 women across the globe to help them achieve success in both public and private organisations. She founded the nonprofit alongside Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright.
  • She revealed to Business Insider the five habits that women need to adopt if they wish to succeed at their workplace.
  • Successful women tend to ask for feedback more often, and are more willing to hear diverse perspectives.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Alyse Nelson knows what it takes for women to succeed.

Nelson cofounded and helms Vital Voices, a global leadership consulting nonprofit that aims to help women get leadership positions. The organisation was also started by Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright in 1997.


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Nelson and Vital Voices have worked with a total of 16,000 women in 182 countries, helping them achieve leadership positions in public and private work.

As part of her mission, Nelson discovered “commonalities” among women who go on to become leaders – traits other women can use to succeed in the workplace. “These are women who are making the world a better place, where they’re defending human rights, or they’re educating girls, or they’re entrepreneurs,” Nelson told Business Insider. “They are not just creating jobs, but giving back to communities.”

Here are five characteristics of successful women to adopt if they want to move up the ranks in their workplace:


Women must know themselves and their values before taking on leadership positions.

REUTERS/Hannibal HanschkeGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a statement in Berlin, Germany, June 24, 2016, after Britain voted to leave the European Union in the EU BREXIT referendum.

The first commonality among successful women is that they are motivated by a purpose or personal mission statement, Nelson said. She said women must understand who they are and which values they want to stand for before expecting others to listen to them.

In fact, one of the biggest differences between male and female leaders is displaying integrity and honesty while leading, according to data from consultancy Zenger Folkman.

“Doing that internal work to understand who you are and what you’re about is the first step of any leadership,” Nelson said. “I think really calling that out has been extremely instrumental to a lot of the women that we work with.”


Successful leaders regularly ask for feedback from their team — and adapt their behaviour to match what their employees want.

Thrive Global

Women leaders, in general, are more comfortable asking for feedback than men, according to Zenger Folkman. The reason stems from male leaders’ tendency to, over time, stop asking for ways to improve. Women tend to continue to ask for feedback even as they age, the consultancy found.

Nelson also says women who ask for feedback from everyone in their organisation – from the bottom level to the top player – will succeed as leaders more often.

“You need to be constantly listening and learning,” she said. “I think also you need to be willing to admit failures. These are all traits that I think come more naturally for women than men.”


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Successful women know how to work with diverse groups of people — including ones they may not agree with.

Brian Ach/Getty ImagesTIME Editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal and Hillary Clinton speak onstage during the TIME 100 Summit 2019 on April 23, 2019, in New York City.

Being able to work with different groups of people sets successful women apart.

Research has shown diversity in decision making tends to lead to better results. Gender and racially diverse teams reexamine facts, better process information, innovate more often, and remain objective more often than monolithic boards, according to the Harvard Business Review. Tufts University psychologist Samuel Sommers even found racially diverse juries raise more case facts and made fewer factual errors than all-white juries.

Allowing for this kind of diversity in perspectives and viewpoints will ensure female leaders thrive, Nelson said.

“It’s very easy to work with people who we agree with and get along with,” she said. “It’s more difficult to work with people who don’t agree with us on 20 different things.”


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Successful women take bold risks more often.

REUTERS/Elijah NouvelageMarissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo, participates in a panel discussion at the 2015 Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco, California November 3, 2015.

Nelson said oftentimes, struggling companies will bring in a woman to lead only after “traditional” male leaders fail to turn the ship around, a statistic shown through research from Utah State University. Marissa Mayer, for instance, took over Yahoo! in 2012 to change the culture of the dysfunctional tech giant.

Nelson said companies do this because they know successful women think outside the box. Oftentimes, they had to take bold risks to set themselves apart early in their career, she said. This quality often leads to more success for women.

“We tend to think more outside the box,” she said. “So many of the women we work with don’t even know there is a box.”


Women in leadership positions invest in their communities to bring up other women.

After facing greater adversity to become leaders, women and minorities have spoken about “paying it forward,” or investing in other underserved communities to get them into high-paying jobs.

Private-equity billionaire Robert F. Smith, one of just 13 black billionaires in the world, according to Forbes, said he decided to pay off the student loans of Morehouse College grads in part to give back to his community. Axiom CEO Elena Donio, a powerful tech and now law executive, invests in women at her company and in underserved populations through charity work.

Nelson said she sees this characteristic repeated globally among women in power.

“You invest in women and they immediately turn around to invest and support other people in their communities,” she said. “And that’s the power of it. I mean, that is the power of investing in women leaders: that ripple effects that you see.”

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