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Are You a Pioneer or a Navigator?

Much has been written about the barriers—both internal and external—women face in getting to positions of leadership. Just read any book about women and leadership and you will be exposed to obstacles galore. We talk about the glass ceiling, the labyrinth of leadership, the double bind, unconscious bias and more.

But what about those women who overcome the barriers to achievement? Who writes about them? The answer is Hannah Riley Bowles, senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. She studies women who managed to beat the odds and achieve positions of top leadership.

For her study, “Claiming Authority: How Women Explain Their Ascent to Top Business Leadership Positions,” Bowles interviewed 50 women who are either CEO, president or CFO of a major corporation or entrepreneurial enterprise. As her research unfolded, she observed two ways that these women claimed leadership positions: by “navigating” or by “pioneering.”

"Navigating is a metaphor for accounts in which women explained their ascent to top leadership as a journey from position to position, following institutionalized career paths," says Bowles. "Pioneering is a metaphor for accounts in which women explain their ascent in terms of a novel strategic vision around which they developed collective support and followers." Both are effective ways to claim a seat at the table.

Navigators work through and follow the institutionalized rules of career advancement by promoting themselves through “gatekeepers of career advancement.” They work within the current system. The pioneer, on the other hand, brings a novel strategic direction to the organization—current or future. She builds a community of supporters and followers of her strategic vision and leadership. She may be doing everything but work within the system.

Neither of these strategies is necessarily better than the other. They’re just different. Both, however, focus on something new—positive avenues for career advancement rather than just negative views of what holds us back. So figure out where you fit in this paradigm and be comfortable with your goals and ambitions and, most importantly, how you will get there.

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