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Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women's Paths to Power

ISBN: 978-1-118-06254-8
208 pages
September 2011, Jossey-Bass
Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women


New York Times Bestseller

How women can make it to the top by adopting the new rules of leadership

Women hold just 11 percent of the most senior-level leadership positions in U.S. Corporations—a number that hasn't changed in over 30 years. How can women break through? Break Your Own Rules distills the six faulty assumptions (or "rules") most women follow that get in the way—then delivers the correlating new rules that promise to clear that path. For example, the old rule of "Focus on Others" must be replaced by "Take Center Stage," "Hard Work Will Get You There" must yield to "Be Politically Savvy." "Play It Safe" must give way to "Play to Win." "Ask Permission" must be replaced by "Proceed Until Apprehended."

  • Features the results of over 1,700 interviews with executives in Fortune 1000 companies, as well as the authors' new research and ongoing work with over 5,000 professional women
  • Showcases previously-untold stories from high profile women including Ann Moore (CEO, Time Inc.), Susan Ivey (CEO, Reynolds American), Cathy Bessant (Global Executive for Technology and Operations for Bank of America), Lynn Ford (CEO, ING Solutions), and more
  • Reveals what it really takes for any woman to succeed at the highest levels
  • Foreword by Sharon Allen, Chairman of Deloitte

This hands-on guide is for women who are ready to transform their assumptions and join the senior ranks of American business.

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Table of Contents

Foreword xiii
by Sharon Allen, Chairman of the Board, Deloitte, LLP

1 OurVision 1

2 Break Your Own Rules 11

3 Take Center Stage 19

4 Proceed Until Apprehended 41

5 Project Personal Power 57

6 Be Politically Savvy 79

7 Play to Win 103

8 It's Both-And 125

9 Stand Together and Close Ranks 147

Notes 157

Reading List for Women Leaders 165

Acknowledgments 167

About the Authors 169

Index 173

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Author Information

Jill Flynn, M.Ed., is managing partner of Flynn Heath Holt Leadership (FHHL), a consulting firm dedicated to developing women leaders. Previously she was SVP at Wachovia (now Wells Fargo).

Kathryn Heath, Ph.D., is managing partner of FHHL. Previously she was SVP and director of First University at Wachovia (now Wells Fargo).

Mary Davis Holt, M.B.A., is managing partner of FHHL. Previously she was SVP and COO of Time Life, Inc.

FHHL's clients include Deloitte, Avery Dennison, National Geographic, the U.S. State Department, and TIAA-CREF.

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Press Release

September 07, 2011
BREAK YOUR OWN RULES: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block


How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block

Women’s Paths to Power

By Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt


“Leadership experts Flynn, Heath, and Holt have delivered a gem. Break Your Own Rules explains exactly why so few women run organizations today and what every woman can do Monday morning to change that. The book is an eye-opener and a life-changer.” 

Kathleen Parker, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist and author of Save the Males


Women have made tremendous strides in business over the past five decades, but their presence in the C-suite remains disappointingly small.  A recent survey showed less than 17 percent of the top leadership positions in the Fortune 500 are held by female executives.  What’s more, it showed that organizations that reflect the population at large, with more women in top leadership roles, are more profitable and better suited for growth in the 21st century.

In their new book, BREAK YOUR OWN RULES: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power (Jossey-Bass; Hardcover; September 13, 2011), former C-suite executives Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt offer a prescriptive plan to break the cycle they say has held women back from the highest levels of business. The authors, who coach some of the country’s most prominent female executives, have an audacious goal – they’d like to double women’s presence in the C-suite, with 30 percent of the senior leadership positions belonging to women by 2021. 


In addition to their own experience in the C-suite, the authors have spent 10 years coaching over 5,000 business women and conducting more than 1,700 executive interviews. Through this process, they have identified six faulty rules women must break in order to move up within their organizations and meet the 30 percent goal. From being modest to focusing on others, working harder to playing it safe, these behaviors, say the authors, are societal and cultural baggage that have women almost pre-programmed to take the back seat. They offer prescriptive advice on how to shift these patterns of thinking and offer six new rules for breakout career success.


  • Take Center Stage

Many talented women find it natural to focus on helping others succeed rather than nurturing their own careers. It is time to stop feeling selfish or self-centered about ambition, and instead, use this energy to move forward.  Package yourself to be a center stage person, and build your career in that manner. This involves taking your own dreams and goals seriously, thinking bigger and aiming higher.

  •  Proceed until apprehended

Asking for permission, not making waves, denying career ambitions, doing as you are told and following the rules are all roadblocks on your path to power. Don’t wait for permission. Make things happen, and appear confident, capable and focused – even if you don’t feel that way. Eventually, this frame of mind and feeling will become an automatic and authentic part of who you are.

  • Project personal power

It is easy for women to “shrink to fit” – to remain quiet in meetings, brush off recognition and wait to be asked. Instead, women need to exude poise, confidence and energy.  Learn to take credit for your hard work. Stop confiding your insecurities. Modesty must fall by the wayside for women who want to be viewed as senior-level leaders

  • Be politically savvy

Women have long been convinced that hard work will win out above all else, but reality proves that being politically savvy in an organization will take them farther. The good news is that women can excel at politics when they want to. The authors suggest drawing on these natural political skills, recognizing that being in-the-know is powerful and actively lobbying for positions is perfectly acceptable, as is being an activist for change. These factors are crucial assets when companies look for the next rung of leaders to move their organizations ahead.

  • Play to win

Too often, women play it safe, operating in a way that is least likely to ruffle feathers or cause tension. There is a societal belief that women are risk averse. Women need to recognize that business is a game and demonstrate they are willing to take the risk required to play. They must become rainmakers. They must be innovative and entrepreneurial. They must be comfortable leading change in their organizations.

  • It’s both-and

Because complexity and constant change are everywhere, dealing with ambiguity has become a primary leadership trait women need to master. Black and white thinking does not lead to career success or personal satisfaction.

Using the real life stories of female executives like Ann Moore CEO of Time, Inc., Gail Evans formerly of CNNCathy Bessant of Bank of America and Lynn Ford of ING, the authors offer a close-up look at what women really think and feel about their careers and their aspirations.  Together, they distill the wisdom they have collected in their work with women eager to tackle their career challenges.

BREAK YOUR OWN RULES is a manifesto for everyone in business in the 21st century, giving women a proven method for getting out of their own way to secure high-ranking positions. It also offers men a clearer picture of what female executives bring to the table – a diverse viewpoint that will help organizations profit and grow.

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