By: Corbette Doyle

A different world cannot be build by indifferent people. Ann Fudge, the CEO of Young & Rubicam, welcomed a recent audience of Catalyst gender diversity honorees with this challenge.

Fudge knows all about succeeding on her own terms. She has broken just about all of the rules, implicit and explicit, supposedly critical for women who want to ascend to the corporate aristocracy. Not only did she get married and become a mother before she earned her college degree, she also dropped out—for two whole years—when she had almost reached the pinnacle of her career as the CEO of a $5 billion division of Kraft.

Did she have young children, or even teen-agers, at home in need of more of her time and attention? No. She had her children early, worked straight through their childhood, and had, in fact, seen them off to college.

Wait a minute. Women who decide to stop-out or drop-out are supposed to do so because of the strain of balancing motherhood and work. We all know this. It’s tattooed on the brain of all working women, those with children, those who want children, and those who work beside co-workers with children. So why did Ms. Fudge stop-out—and how on earth did she manage such a spectacular return?

She did it by following the two rules she shared with the audience that evening:

  1. She defined success on her own terms, and
  2. She didn’t allow other people to define failure for her.

Two beautifully simple tips that, if we think long and hard about them, convey a world of wisdom.

How do you define success on our own terms? First, you must figure out the keys to your own happiness. Do you want to be CEO? If so, are you prepared for the 80-90 hour weeks required for that level of corporate success? Married or single, do you want to combine children with a career? If so, do you want to continue to work full or part-time after you have children – or take a few years off? Critical things to think about, to plan for, and to build support networks for. Most women give at least some thought to these decisions, but what about other dreams or goals? Do you have a passion for creating art or literature or a drive to get involved in your community? All things which will pull you away from the time consuming process of climbing the corporate ladder, yet, if they fuel your energy and creativity, they can significantly enhance your personal and professional success.

It’s not enough to think about these things, or dream about them, in a vacuum. And it’s certainly unwise to leave them to chance, though many of us do just that. What’s wrong with leaving it to chance? The likelihood of unfulfilled expectations rises dramatically.

Look at the numbers. For the last twenty-eight years, more women have received college degrees in this country than men, yet only 16% of all senior executives at Fortune 500 firms are women and only eleven of their CEOs. Can we blame it all on outdated corporate systems that fail to accommodate working mothers? Or on biased executives and managers who allow stereotypes—about women and men—to hold women back?

No. Women must shoulder part of the responsibility for the choices they make or allow others to make for them. Too many of us allow our mothers, spouses, or bosses to make the critical decisions that we need to make. Maybe not overtly, but we become co-dependents when we allow them to push us down the path of their choosing because it’s easier than resisting. We do this when we choose a college or a job that our parents recommend over the one that speaks to our soul. We do it when we allow a spouse to convince us that he makes enough to support the family and that child-care would eat up all of our earnings, even if working fulfills us. And we do it when we allow a boss to relegate us to the ranks of the “un-promotable” simply because we select a company-approved flex option or leave work at five twice a week to volunteer at the community center.

Why does it matter? How will making choices that are more consistent with our vision of success lead to more women at the top and in the pipeline? It’s all about passion. When we’re passionate about what we’re doing, we do it better—and so do all of the people around us. Doing what we love, and doing it well, dramatically increases the likelihood that we will fulfill our expectations.

Passion is the yeast that raises the dough. That anonymous quote has a double entendre for women. Not only does passion yield better results, it’s also one of the keys to earning more money (that and better negotiation skills, but the art of negotiation for women is a whole other matter). Money won’t buy satisfaction or passion, but it’s critical for several reasons:

  1. It’s a yardstick by which we measure the value of our contributions
  2. It’s a yardstick by which future bosses and employers will measure our value—as in, “If she ‘costs’ more, she must be worth more.”)
  3. Money makes it easier to outsource—housekeeping, cooking, high quality childcare—which, in turn, makes it easier to focus and generate results at work, which leads to even higher value.

So, how do you push for the choices you want and need? With your spouse, make him understand that the psychological and emotional rewards of working outweigh the cost or inconvenience. Then show him how, if he helps out more at home, he can make the whole household run more smoothly. For your boss, make sure she has reason to appreciate and value you, even if you’re telecommuting, working part-time, or leaving earlier than your “fully committed” counterparts. Find ways to go above and beyond her expectations by making it easy to find you, by delivering more/better/faster than expected, and by finding ways to support your colleagues who must support you to make your flex strategy work for the whole team. And when it’s time for your own children to select a college or choose a first job, don’t make them follow in your footsteps and don’t force the choices on them that you wish you had had at their age. Instead, help them figure out the alternative ways they might define success and give them tools to make the choice that’s right for them.

Sometimes, life makes the choices for us—or forces us to take a step back and reevaluate our decision-making criteria. Cheryl Bachelder, former President of Kentucky Fried Chicken, faced that situation after a personal crisis. “I asked myself if I was only going to have, say, 7 years left to live, is this what I’d want to do with them? My value choices got a lot clearer after that and, once you start making value-based decisions, they will be evident in your career choices as well.” For her, the right choice was to walk away from her high-powered, high-pressured career. Not that she walked away from the corporate arena. She simply chose to re-engage in a different manner. Earlier this year, she was elected to the Board of Directors of True-Value Hardware and she has key leadership roles in the food service industry and at her alma mater that allow her to give back by nurturing bright young talent.

Figuring out the timetable that works best for you is a critical component of satisfaction and success. Often, it’s all about the pacing. Think long-distance marathon rather than a sprint.

A key pacing issue for many women is when to have children. Almost two-thirds of the 500 women who answered a website survey I co-hosted believe it’s easier to establish a career before you have children. Why? First, it allows you to focus your time and energy on building a foundation from which you can build expertise and springboard your career. Second, that expertise makes you more valuable to your employer—which dramatically increases your ability to negotiate the flexibility a working mother needs. And third, established professionals command a higher salary—which, as discussed above, makes it easier to afford high quality outsourcing like child-care.

Yet Ann Fudge had hers early. Clearly, it didn’t deter her any more than it deterred Susan Oberreither, CEO of Park Re in Philadelphia, who married and had two children before she graduated from college. Rather than opting out, she factored her parenting role into the subsequent choices she made. Choices which included her husband opting to work from home and serve as the primary care-giver and Susan’s decision to pursue the entrepreneurial route. “I had to make a choice. Go work for a large company, have a nice salary and the security that goes with it—or take a risk on my own abilities. I chose me.” Susan subsequently merged her company back into a larger corporate environment, one that provided the financial reward for her solo success and allows her to continue to exercise her entrepreneurial instincts.

Making your own choices doesn’t always mean reaching for something. As Cheryl Bachelder points out, sometimes it means pushing opportunities away that aren’t right for you—or aren’t right at this point in time. Mastering the art of saying no gracefully does not come easily to many women. For some, it’s not even in their vocabulary. My longtime mentor and boss once told me, after he found out I accepted another of the many company steering committee invitations I receive, that they were going to engrave on my tombstone, “Just say no.”

The first step, then, is accepting the fact that you have both the right and the obligation to turn some requests down. If you have a deadline and you can’t possibly squeeze in a last-minute client request and still meet the deadline, you have to say no. The key is doing it gracefully. Don’t be afraid to explain your dilemma to the client and ask if the request can be filled twenty-four hours later. If not, find someone else who can help the client—and if there isn’t anyone else, find a way to avoid the problem next time by developing a back-up buddy system that kicks in when you or the buddy has a time crunch. The same is true for clients, projects and committees. If you have a reputation for getting things done—a very good thing to have—you will be asked to do far more of those things than you can possibly handle. Rather than become overburdened with clients or projects of low value, learn to prioritize your yes’s. Accept those that benefit your career or that you have a passion for, and gracefully decline the others. Even better, suggest someone coming up the ladder behind you who might appreciate and benefit from the opportunity.

Some women are great at saying no, especially when it comes to big, scary, hairy things. Like relocation. Or promotions. About a third of the survey respondents said they turned down promotions that asked too much of them. While some made that choice because they were pacing themselves, others may have said no because they were afraid to take the risk of failing or because they were afraid they didn’t deserve the promotion. Research on the Imposter Phenomenon suggests women may be more likely to underestimate their ability to perform. In her book, What’s Holding You Back, ­­­Dr. Linda Austin talks about women who hesitate to accept a promotion because, “They’ve never done the job before.” Well, that’s why they call it a promotion. It’s a new job, one you’ve been asked to tackle because of your proven ability in other roles.

While men may hesitate to embrace a new opportunity because of comparable fears, you rarely hear it discussed. Some may have more confidence in their ability. Or they may simply be less willing to voice their fears, especially to the person offering the opportunity to them.

Not that fear isn’t a healthy emotion, simply that it should be a consideration rather than the deciding factor. Women are considered better long term investors than men, for example, because they are less risk averse and thus more likely to opt for a buy-and-hold strategy rather than churn stocks in search of the big winner.

To counterbalance the fear of either failure or lack of suitability for a job, it may help to think of your career as a chess game. At times it pays to take risks; other times you need to protect your flanks. But the old adage of no risk, no reward, applies to most careers. You can’t make measurable progress without taking career risks that push you out of your comfort zone. The six million women entrepreneurs in this country all took significant risks when they went off on their own. We need more women in corporate America to do the same—on a daily basis. Besides, a less than stellar success becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy if you don’t take some calculated gambles. As Susan Oberreither so eloquently put it, wouldn’t you rather take that gamble on your own abilities? Sure, sometimes you’ll lose, but sometimes you’ll win—and sometimes risk taking will teach you valuable lessons that fuel a future, stellar success. Just look at Ann Fudge.

Aside from internal doubts and concerns about failure, women are constantly bombarded with messages from others labeling their choices, and them, as failures. Linda Brock* in Atlanta faced this with the stay-at-home moms in her suburban development when she visited the swimming pool with her children. Fed up with the pity party they wanted to throw because she, “clearly had to work to pay the mortgage on their new home,” she put her own pool in. Another senior level associate who recently chose to take a year off for personal reasons battled the reverse from a male colleague who told her she was making it harder for the women coming up behind her. A third is battling with the guilt of forcing her college choice on her daughter who, after two and a half years, is still unhappy at the college of her mother’s choice.

When we follow our passions, when we make choices that reflect who we are and what we want from our multi-dimensional lives, it is easier to live with the consequences of those choices, and easier still to learn from them and use them as a stepping stone toward a new, higher level goal. When we are conflicted or, worse, when we know we made the choice someone else pushed on us, it becomes easy to feel like a failure and to allow others to make us feel that way.

One strategy that may make it easier to avoid self-induced feelings of failure is to establish a set of rules that help guide your decision-making. If you have bad childhood memories associated with changing high schools because your family moved frequently, you may put your foot down to any relocations while your children are teen-agers. Or, if you are ensconced in your community, you might refuse promotions that involve any relocation. If a promotion requires you to travel extensively, you might make personal rules about events you won’t miss, because the likelihood of missing some increases the further up the ladder you rise. If your son is the star football quarterback, you may insist on attending all play-off games, or you aspiring ballerina’s recitals, or you may carve family birthdays on your calendar in stone. By determining what’s sacred to you—and your family—and then protecting it, you build success on your own terms and resist the efforts of others to make you feel like a failure.

And what if, at forty or fifty or fifty-five, you’re just waking up and realizing that the choices made at twenty-two weren’t the keys to your happiness or, as Joseph Campbell put it, you “…Reached the top of the ladder and found it was against the wrong wall”? What then? Well, it’s certainly not too late, especially today when fifty is the new thirty. Sue Schellenbarger, the work/life columnist for The Wall Street Journal published a book last year about women’s mid-life crises. The six transitional archetypes for women she defined in Breaking Point are more like second acts than crises. The women she profiled include a CEO who forged her leadership roles late in life and a women who abandoned the life she’d allowed others to define for her in order to explore her artistic soul.

Bottom line, it’s never too early to ignore the efforts of others to define our failures—and it’s never too late to define success on our own terms.

* Name changed to protect the land locked.