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Success Article
March, 2001

When Climbing the Corporate Ladder, 
People Skills Are Paramount

by Debra Pestrak

It’s often said that your employees get you promoted, but your peers allow you to be promoted. Nothing could be truer when it comes to advancing up the corporate ladder. That’s why people skills—being able to get along with others regardless of age, race, or gender—are so vital to your career.

Since most people achieve their greatest comfort level when surrounded by people who are like themselves, developing people skills is sometimes a challenge, as the goal is to connect with everyone—even those you may not normally feel comfortable with. Because most professionals ultimately have to associate more with people who are unlike themselves, you need to develop great people skills in order to be an effective leader and to advance in an organization.

The new book Playing with the Big Boys: Success Secrets of the Most Powerful Women in Business captures the importance of getting along with others. All the top female Fortune 500® executives profiled in the book cite the importance of people skills to their careers. In order to make it to the top, they quickly learned how to relate with their co-workers, despite any negativity that resulted from their differences.

Mary Farrell, Managing Director, Senior Investment Analyst and Member of the Policy Committee for PaineWebber, Inc., states that interpersonal skills—your people skills—are of utmost importance to your success. “I remember reading a business school study of people who were fired, and the common denominator was their not getting along with other people,” says Farrell. “You spend a minimum of eight hours a day at the office with your colleagues. This is in essence your second family. In fact, many spend more time with that second family than with their nuclear family. Getting along with people is crucially important and very helpful in a career.”

One of the keys to developing your people skills is to value and develop relationships. Additionally, when you place a high ethical value on cooperation and responsibility, you’ll more often than not win people over to your side. While many people may believe that to succeed in business you must fight for autonomy, the truth is that it’s better to downplay conflict and seek consensus.

Karen Garrison, President, Pitney Bowes Management Services, states, “You have to engage, not be personal friends, not to be buddy buddies, but to know where people are on that gauge.” Ursula Burns, Senior Corporate Vice President and Vice President Worldwide Manufacturing Operations, Xerox, emphasizes the ability to collaborate rather than compete, adding, “From the beginning of time, people have been taught to nurture and work in groups. So there is this natural ability to include, even if there’s difference, you include them, nurture, more than to compete.”

Empathy Is a Key to Leadership

Many of the women profiled believe that empathy is also a key people skill. You need employees to respect you if you are going to be able to lead them. That respect comes from your ability to understand others, being fair and even-minded, and valuing and respecting the opinions of others. Successful executives find they have to be tolerant of others, understand where they are coming from, and withhold judgment about them until they can think about the motivations involved.

Successful executives use this same empathy when making presentations. They adjust their communications based on the audience they are speaking to. Jean Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer, Prudential Institutional, states, “First, you must really believe in what you’re espousing. If you don’t, it will be very easy for someone to punch holes in your thinking. Next, you need to clearly communicate how your point of view is good for your organization, not just good for yourself. If you don’t make this point clear, others may quickly try to paint your position as self-promoting. In any business effort, the most influential path is the one that is truly a win-win situation. It’s very important to understand the perspective of the person or group with whom you will be dealing. What are their goals? What are their barriers? What are they afraid of? What’s really essential that they accomplish? What is it that they think about? And how do they communicate? Only then can you truly develop a win-win scenario. If you push through your position, you may have short-term success, but the solution or the partnership won’t last.”

For Anne Livermore, President, Business Customer Organization at Hewlett-Packard, her biggest learning lesson was realizing how to get people to get things done. As she explains, “It’s the very simple lesson of realizing how powerful it is just to recognize someone, to thank them for what they’ve done, to motivate them to do that much more. Reward and recognition can inspire great behavior, great results.” By learning this interaction secret, Livermore has been able to attain one of the top positions in her company.

Listen to Succeed

Another important people skill for business advancement is listening. The higher you climb up the ladder, the more important listening becomes. In fact, the top female executives rate listening a “10” on a scale of 1-to-10 of the skills most needed for success.

Anne Sweeney, President, Disney/ABC Cable Networks and President, Disney Channel, believes her listening ability is what made her success attainable. She says, “I had to become a better listener. I had to listen more carefully to everything from people’s advice to how they did their jobs. I found out that the more carefully I listened, the better idea I had about the path I wanted to take. That’s really what made all the difference.”

When asked which behaviors have been integral to her success, Ellen Hancock, Chairman and CEO, Exodus Communications®, cited listening as one of her top three. “You have to listen and sometimes there are better days for listening than others,” she explains. “Other people have to be sensitive, too, as to whether you’re ready for all the input. But listening helps.”

Not Who You Know, But What You Know

Similarly, the top female executives have learned to show trust in their subordinates. They acquired the ability to delegate and then to trust the subordinates to do the job. For many, though, this wasn’t an easy task. Fortunately, they learned to surround themselves not necessarily with people who are like them, but who are the right people—those with an attitude for success, team players who understand the vision and bring different perspectives to the team. They learned that without a variety of perspectives, issues can be viewed in a tunnel and opportunities missed.

When Karen Garrison first started her career, she wanted to do it all and get noticed for her accomplishments. But as she advanced she realized she could be more successful with the help of others. “As you start managing people, you have to accept that you can’t personally do it all, even though you might know you could do it better. You have to trust that other people can do it better. You have to give it up. You have to really, truly delegate, and for those of us who really want to do a lot and do it well, that’s very hard to do normally,” she says.

Reach the Top Today

If you want to be successful in an organization, you have to believe in yourself and realize that your goal is attainable. However, before you can reach the top-tier of corporate success, you also need to develop the people skills that will get you there. By working on your teamwork, empathy, listening, and delegation skills, you can achieve your career aspirations.

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Success Thought



Riches come from within you, not in material possessions.
Your true riches are riches of the head and heart.
Satisfaction comes from truly appreciating what you have.
Wealth without enjoyment gives little satisfaction.

There are two ways of being happy:
either diminish your wants or
reach out for new ways to augment your means.
It’s always better to appreciate things you cannot have
than to have the things you cannot appreciate.

It’s not what you have, but what you enjoy
that constitutes your abundance and happiness.

Great Quotations from Great Women

“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that 
end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time 
share a general responsibility for all humanity, 
our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.”

— Marie Curie

Available Now! 

The book Playing with the Big Boys: Success Secrets of the Most Powerful Women in Business is available at local bookstores and Web sites:

or it can be ordered from the Products page or by calling toll free 888-SUN-3777.

The full candid audio and videos interviews with the Most Powerful Women are also available either at the telephone numbers above or the Products page.

Debra Pestrak has developed a two-day program focused on what it takes to be successful in your career. Contact her at 888- SUN-3777 for more information on this dynamic program.

About the Most Powerful Women Success Traits


If you want to learn which success traits you need to master to become a Most Powerful Women, contact Success Unleashed® at 888-786-3777 for the assessment and free consultation.

About the Author

Debra Pestrak is a peak performance expert, an award-winning motivational speaker, and author of Playing with the Big Boys: Success Secrets of the Most Powerful Women in Business and Playing with the Big Boys & Girls in Real Estate. Debra is founder and CEO of Success Unleashed, Inc.®, a company dedicated to developing powerful programs that impact the way people think and work. Pestrak was a player in corporate America for 26 years, working her way up the ranks from a telephone operator to managing a $20 million budget. She also has instituted and led sales organizations, and is the past president of the National Speakers Association – San Diego. To discover more performance advice, contact the author at 888 SUN-3777.



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