Do You Have To Be Ruthless To Succeed In Business?

Do You Have To Be Ruthless To Succeed In Business?

do you have to be ruthless in business?An RBS study of diversity in business and commercial banking, published in May 2013, found that a third of women said the type of aggressive business behaviour seen on TV shows such as Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice is putting them off. In the study, 40% of women between the ages of 18 and 35 described the mentality of contestants on these types of shows as ‘off-putting causing them to doubt they had the ruthlessness they needed to be successful in business. However, more than half of women asked said they were inspired to get into business by women who failed in their first venture but went on to build successful organizations.

Recently I was asked to look back over the previous 20+ years working in the City to recall women I have worked with who showed no pity and were merciless in business. I honestly couldn’t think of one. The only person that kept springing to mind was Miranda Priestly from the Devil Wears Prada and I don’t know one woman who would aspire to the nature of that character or who wouldn’t have an internal battle about acting in such a manner.

Being ruthless is certainly not a trait I would encourage any of my mentees to use in order to get ahead. From a personal perspective, there were times in my own career when I have adopted a ruthless approach, but it involved business decisions rather than people. Whenever there was a person involved I found I wrestled more with the business decision, because being ruthless is not something that comes naturally to me or to most women.

Women who believe they have to adopt ruthless tactics to get ahead are sorely mistaken. Adopting such behaviour will win you no friends or respect. It is far better to fine-tune other strings in your bow than to spend your time stepping on others to get to the top, or being an individual who cares for nothing but their own progression.

It is unfortunate that women seem to get labelled far more easily than our male counterparts. If we display passion it is perceived as emotional, if we display frustration, it is seen as anger, so if we make a decision that is perceived to be out of line with our normal “caring demeanour”, it wouldn’t be hard to pick up the word ruthless as well!

I truly believe there are more opportunities for women than there has ever been and that we should celebrate the amazing skill sets we have and use what comes naturally to us to get ahead. Taking in the advice of mentors and role models and listening to how other women manager their positions in business are vital to success and longevity.

Slowly but surely there a realization that the qualities that come naturally to women, such as emotional intelligence, attitude towards risk and organizational management are needed more and more in both times of crisis and at a senior level. I’ll never forget an article by the Economist back in 2009, which discussed how the financial crisis would have been handled differently if it were Lehman Sisters as opposed to Lehman Brothers. We should celebrate our indifference to our male counterparts and not try to emulate behaviours that don’t come naturally to us as women.

I speak to hundreds of women every month and over the past few years I have started to see a new kind of female emerge. I am pleased to say being ruthless is not part of her make up. She pushes boundaries and has clear expectations about what is acceptable both in terms of behaviour and what to expect in terms of her employers’ and partner’s support. She knows it is as much about who she knows as what she knows. She is aware that there are support networks where she can gain new skills and expand her peer group outside her normal working environment. She also knows that if she is not getting what she needs from her employer she should move on, set up on her own or get the required flexibility and opportunities elsewhere. She is also aware that her boat may not necessarily come in; there is a good chance she may need to swim out to it.

As women, we will always have our challenges and a different set of constraints to men, but it is up to us to set the playing field for the future and for those in senior positions to encourage and develop the female talent pool and appreciate the professional value and skills we bring as women (as a collective). If the senior leaders in our organizations don’t see the value, we will never grow the gender balanced culture we so desperately need to address some of the pervasive issues we face in business today.


By: Vanessa Vallely

Vanessa Vallely is a recognized expert in person-to-person business networking, online branding and a sought after motivational speaker. In 2008, Vanessa started the networking site:, as a vehicle to help other City women connect and grow professionally and personally.