Why every woman should learn the rule of thirds

Reflect on it.
Reflect on it.
Image: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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As a woman, a person of color, and an immigrant, I don’t fit the usual profile of an American bank CEO. It is not surprising, therefore, that I am often asked how I got “here.” The fact that I started as a part-time teller in the profession when I arrived on these shores three decades ago only adds to the intrigue.

A few years ago during an awards dinner where I was recognized as one of the most “powerful women” in banking, I addressed this question. In trying to explain how I made the career choices that I did to grow in my industry, I concluded that I had simply practiced what I call the rule of thirds.

I arrived at this rule after observing that women typically do not raise their hands for a corporate position until they feel confident that they can do 100% of the job, and succeed in every aspect of it, from day one. Men, on the other hand, generally tend not to suffer such qualms and, as a result, seem more willing to aspire to challenging positions, with the hope and confidence that they will grow into the job.

The rule of thirds was my way of addressing this issue for myself and overcoming my self-doubts to give myself the permission to aspire. It was alright, I would tell myself, to take on a position that was “one third in my comfort zone, one third a stretch, and one third pure white-knuckle terror.” It was my prosaic and pragmatic adaptation of Robert Browning’s celebrated insight, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

The rule of thirds has worked for me, and I shared it in my speech because I thought industry colleagues still early in their careers might benefit from it—a license to aspire!—as they went about making their own career choices.

It was not meant as a guaranteed formula for success, let alone as a panacea for all of one’s career challenges. Success is the result of a far too complex set of factors to fit neatly onto a bumper-sticker-size formula. But we should willing to lean into the discomfort of work.

When it comes to taking these leaps, hard work, intelligence, and persistence are only table stakes.

Then there are the issues of being prepared, being at the right place at the right time, having thoughtful mentors to guide you and enlightened sponsors willing to take a risk on you, and, in my case, a supportive spouse that will stand by you—and, lest we forget chance, sheer luck!

In our capitalist society, it is little surprise that “P&L” positions—positions that influence a company’s profit-and-loss statement and contribute to the corporate bottom line—are perceived as positions of power. Unfortunately, relatively few women hold such positions in the corporate world today.

Historical circumstances, unfortunately, have not been favorable to women and other minorities when it comes to power within and outside the corporate world. It is time to address this history—and to change the script.

I have tried to do so at Bank of the West. I have made it a priority to identify women and minority individuals with the expertise and ability, but perhaps not the past opportunity, for a senior leadership position. I’ve given them P&L responsibilities and made sure to surround them with a competent team of professionals. In addition, I make sure to find the time to mentor them personally, and to show them by example that you don’t have to be an instant expert in a more senior role you’ve never held before. You just have to be willing to follow the rule of thirds.