As the popular press continues to run articles about women ‘opting out’ of the competitive corporate world, many people are joining the debate over what it takes for women to succeed in corporate America today. So it was no surprise that one of the most crowded sessions at the recent Wharton Women in Business conference was a panel on women and leadership – entitled “Walking the Leadership Tightrope” –  in which panelists and moderator tackled the thorny issue of whether women truly do work and lead differently than men.

Brand You: Does It Change the Way you Work?

Moderator Janet Hanson, managing director at Lehman Brothers and founder of the global networking group 85 Broads, led the conversation by commenting on how important developing one’s “personal brand” is to finding success in the business world. Hanson, who was the first woman ever to reach management ranks in the sales division of Goldman Sachs, asked her panelists, “How do you develop your own personal brand, and how does it affect your leadership style?”

The Progressive Corp.’s Northeast Agency general manager Meryl Golden said her personal brand is best described as “work hard, play hard,” and that it absolutely bleeds over into her management philosophy. “I’m a direct communicator and my ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude keeps my job in perspective,” she said. “It also means I nurture other people who work hard, and I sell them within the company to help them find opportunities – which makes them more loyal to me.”

For Anu Shukla, a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is currently president and CEO of a web applications company called Rubiconsoft, classic entrepreneurial qualities define her personal style. “I am tenacious and optimistic, and like any good entrepreneur, I am fueled by the thrill of picking off the impossible and making it happen.” In terms of her leadership style on the job, “as an entrepreneur I have a group vision I want to achieve for the company. My drive means I expect my team to rally around and make it happen,” Shukla told the audience.

Travelocity CEO Michelle Peluso’s personal brand focuses on passion and love for the job. “I can’t do things unless I love them. I work extremely hard, so I believe you must have fun on the job to make that worth it.” The work-as-passion approach makes success self-fulfilling as a leader, Peluso added. “I believe in having fun always. It’s selfish; if my team is fired up, then Travelocity will succeed.”

Xerox’s chief marketing officer Diane McGarry, by contrast, said she had never considered her career in terms of a personal brand, but characterized her leadership style as being inclusive and decisive, with good listening at the top of her list of important personal qualities. As a leadership guide, McGarry told the audience, “Go buy a copy of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. It reminds us how important it is to get the right people on the bus and get them in the right seats – then to motivate them to do what they do best,” she said.

Growing the Next Generation of Successful Leaders

The issue of whether today’s successful businesswomen have a responsibility to aid the next generation of rising women leaders is a matter of contentious debate: Should women see themselves as individuals in the corporate world, or should they be thinking collectively to move the whole group forward? Hanson asked the panelists to reflect on how their companies grow successful leaders and ensure women’s success within the organization.

“We don’t,” stated Golden. “There are very few women at senior levels of Progressive. The bottom line is results. They are the only thing that have impact and are the only means to success.” As such, Golden said she didn’t subscribe to theories of collective advancement, but rather suggested that the best thing the conference attendees could do to ensure their own success was to work hard and become affiliated with successful projects. Shukla partly agreed, noting that in her early days in Silicon Valley the only way she became taken seriously while working at a chip company that sold to the missile industry was when she landed a $60 million deal with Kodak to apply the company’s chip technology to the inkjet printer industry. “No one believed I had done it – I worked out the deal while I was on vacation – so I had to actually bring back the check,” she said. “Results are everything.” Now a business owner herself, however, Shukla said she consciously hires women and sets the example of how women should be treated within the organization.

As a young consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, Peluso said that at a team dinner, a partner once complimented her “great smile” while commending the male team members’ business skills on a recent work project. “I answered by saying, ‘Thanks, I’ve always thought you had great legs.’ Humor can be powerful.” Peluso added, however, that in order to break down stereotypes, women in business need to overcome the twin perceptions that they are not confident enough or willing to take enough risks to succeed. “State your views. Voice your ideas. And coming out of business school, remember that even if it is expected that you go into banking or consulting, you can chart your own path. Take a sabbatical. Go sideways. Do the unexpected. For a rich life you have to take risks.”

Leveraging the Network

Women often talk about the formal and informal networks that are open to men and closed to women – and what an integral part these networks play in achieving corporate success. In response, Hanson founded a global networking group in 1999 called 85 Broads which now claims more than 4,200 members worldwide at more than 400 different companies. She asked the panelists to share what kinds of networks had been instrumental in their success.

The four panelists all agreed that informal networks were as important as formal networking or mentoring groups. According to McGarry, success at a big company such as Xerox requires an understanding of the many layers of office politics as well as the confidence to put your best ideas forward. “You have to know which people you need to get your ideas in front of in order to get those ideas advanced. Every time you make a move in a big company, you expand your network of people who are in your corner,” she said. Peluso agreed. “Pick the five or 10 people you most admire and offer to take them to lunch to seek their advice. People genuinely want to go out of their way to help you succeed if you ask for their help.”

Shukla added that while you should always be building your personal network through informal means, there were organizations such as the Washington, D.C.-based Women’s High Tech Coalition and the Bay Area-based Forum for Women Entrepreneurs that had been invaluable to her as a business professional in the high-tech field. “Keep in touch with these organizations so they can help you raise your profile,” she advised.

60 Seconds on the Couch

The high-energy panel wrapped up with a lightning-round of advice from each of the panelists, beginning with moderator Hanson.

  • Hanson: “I married the guy across the trading desk from me at Goldman, then divorced him six years later, then became his boss shortly after that – while still sitting across the desk. Some said it must be sweet to be the boss, but actually it was really, really painful. I had never considered what marrying and divorcing would do to my personal risk profile, but sitting across from my ex-husband was like having a rottweiler chained to my desk. I ended up leaving the firm at the absolute height of my career. Little did I know that would open the door to founding my own firm, later coming back at a higher salary, and meeting my second husband. My advice is this: Anything that happens to force you to do serious, painful self-examination is a good thing. Remember that it’s not about banking or consulting, it’s about you – what you have accomplished, finding out what you love. In the end, you could get married, you could get divorced, your company could dissolve. Regardless, you have to know who you are and what makes you go.”

  • Pelus “The value of relationships shines in crisis situations. Have a really high bar for the people you surround yourself with, then work like crazy and have a ball. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

  • Shukla: “It’s not just about the highs or lows. You have to deal equally elegantly with both. In the Valley we went through the biggest bubble, and we remember those days fondly. Then you had the biggest bust of all. It’s been depressing for the last few years, and now it’s coming around again. In order to succeed as an entrepreneur, you must have an even keel and navigate each just as well.”

  • Golden: “You want to know how to get noticed? Take on the riskiest projects. I turned around the business losing the most money at Progressive and you can bet I got noticed. Now I have such a network inside the company that I can get anything done. Also, keep in touch with all the smartest alumni of your company. They will become your competitors, your future employees, your future bosses. Stay friends with smart people. It will be worth it.”

  • McGarry: “Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. If they do, it should be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”