One thing every woman must know about climbing the corporate ladder is that it’s you, not your work, that will get you to the top. Of course, the work has to be stellar. But the journey doesn’t begin and end there.
You need to step in front of the work. You need to advocate for it, and convince others that it’s good and important. Through that process, you’ll get to know and believe in yourself more, and you’ll build the relationships that will help you ascend higher.
The key thing about “the ladder” that no one tells you is that the rungs aren’t evenly spaced. Some of them are so close together that you’ll have trouble gaining traction. You’ll grow tired of scrambling up, one after the other, and you’ll wonder if you’ll ever reach the top. Others are spaced so far apart that it will seem impossible to grab the next one.
When I joined Maxus as its first U.K. CEO, I was definitely skipping a few rungs. I had been a managing partner at a rival agency, and I leapfrogged straight into being a CEO. Moments like that can throw off your perception of the ladder, and cause you to question whether you’re ready to climb that high just yet. But by putting yourself in front of the work, you won’t get so bogged down wondering whether the experience on your CV aligns exactly with what a person at that level would be expected to have. In many cases it may not, but you’ll understand yourself well enough to know whether or not you’re ready.
In taking the role at Maxus, I wasn’t concerned that I hadn’t spent time on the couple of rungs below CEO. I knew I was so ready to build a team and a business under my own vision. In a sense, I was creating my own ladder.
In remembering that it’s you who’s pushing your career forward, you’ll also be more open to cooperation and collaboration. No one gets to the top alone. Everyone needs a helping hand on some of those bigger rungs, and that’s when all of the time you spent advocating for yourself and instilling confidence in others will come into play. Likewise, you must always be on the lookout for those who also deserve a helping hand, and do your part in paying it forward.
With those collaborative relationships in place, you’ll be able to surround yourself with people who believe in you and can support you in your goals. When I took the leap from being the U.K. CEO to worldwide CEO of Maxus, I was again able to jump up a few steps. When I asked for the role, I knew I hadn’t held a regional position like most in my role would have. But I was ready and I had a network in place that I could rely on for support. I was hungry and felt I could stretch up. Having honed my skills in the art of teamwork, I felt confident that I could smooth over any gaps in my experience (by asking for help unashamedly), while I learned the ins and outs of my newly expanded position.
The key point to remember is that the rungs on the corporate ladder aren’t lines on your CV. You don’t make the climb by ticking off the boxes that you think make a “leader.” You make your way up the ladder by remembering that you’re confident, super capable, and the real deal—not just a body of work to be judged.
(The author is Global CEO Maxus. The column was first published in Fortune's Most Powerful Women network)