3 Fortune 500 CEOs Share the Advice, Lessons and Skills That Have Shaped Their Success

Photos: Getty Images; Graphic: Elham Ataeiazar | CNBC Make It

The number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 rose to a record high this year — 44 — which still means that women run less than 10% of the largest corporations in the U.S. 

Despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, women have yet to achieve true equity with their male colleagues in the C-Suite: Only 21% of C-Suite leaders at U.S. companies are women, according to a September 2021 report from and McKinsey & Co.



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Research has pointed to hiring discrimination, unconscious bias and fewer promotional opportunities for women as some of the factors driving the gap. 

The women who are succeeding in the Fortune 500, however, have made commendable strides in representation: Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, is the first female leader of a major international automaker, for example, and Beth Ford, who began leading Land O'Lakes in 2018, is the first openly gay woman to become a Fortune 500 CEO.

CNBC Make It spoke with Ford and other Fortune 500 CEOs Roz Brewer and Kathy Warden about the best career advice they've ever received, their biggest career regrets, on-the-job lessons that have shaped their success and more.

Rosalind (Roz) Brewer, CEO of Walgreens

On the importance of patience: 

When I first started my career, I wanted everything yesterday. I'm a self-starter, I would start a job on day one and think, 'I know how to do this better' and be ready to take charge. But each company has their own way of doing things. I didn't always understand the processes, and patience just wasn't a skill of mine. 

But over time I learned that the more patient I became, the more I learned, and an appetite for learning is so important for your success. So I slowed myself down, surrounded myself with mentors and sponsors, and paid close attention to my professional development. I think patience worked really well for me. 

On the most surprising part of being a CEO:

I didn't realize how much my day job as CEO would mean to the employees. Social activism is coming inside private corporations, and people want to hear from CEOs on certain issues. The CEO needs to be a very broad spectrum leader.

I came in with this plan for a larger vision, our strategy, our plan to grow talent within the company. But I spend a good amount of my time making sure that our employees are benefiting from social engagement and thinking about issues that I can influence from a legislative standpoint. I spend a lot more time in D.C. than I thought I would have to. I'm slowly realizing that I have to take my position as CEO and make it really meaningful, not just to this company, but outside of it. 

Kathy Warden, CEO of Northrop Grumman

On the best career advice she's ever received:

The best career advice I've ever received is to really challenge yourself and expose yourself to as many new opportunities as possible so you can continue to learn and grow.

Even if you're in the same role for a long time, every day can bring a new set of opportunities and challenges. You want to be able to respond to those with confidence and resilience, and those skills start with a foundation early on in your career, with some risk-taking and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone.

On her biggest career regret and how it shaped her: 

I try not to have regrets, but I've certainly had setbacks. And one of those setbacks was when I spent two years pursuing a major business campaign that ultimately was unsuccessful, and really came out of that experience thinking that my career was over. But within days, it was clear that that's not how my employer looked at it at all. They were appreciative that I had taken on a big challenge, and we gave it everything that we could as a company.

I realized that setbacks really are learning experiences, you can recover from your mistake, and if you work for a good organization, the company will view it that way too. 

The way you respond to setbacks is often more important than the setback itself. You need to own it, then you need to reflect on what you can learn from it, and how you can apply that knowledge going forward.

Beth Ford, CEO of Land O'Lakes

On how she deals with work stress: 

I tend to be a pretty pragmatic, 'programmed' type of person. Some people would say Type A — I would disagree — but I really like to work out. Paying attention to my physical health gives me mental clarity. 

So I tend to be an early riser, I read every email I feel like I need to read, and then I see my children, move to the gym, and get a workout in. That routine has created a lot of balance for me. 

I also have the good fortune of having a wonderful family, a supportive spouse and a terrific team. So any stress I feel is balanced with the gratefulness I have for those things. I always try to approach my day thinking of the things that I'm grateful for, and investing in my physical health and spending time with family helps counter any remaining stress.

On the two traits you need to succeed in business: 

The first attribute is humility. Folks who are successful understand on a deep level that they don't know everything, and have the humility and the courage to ask someone else for assistance or input. 

The second one is authenticity, some degree of caring about other people and their success. Most of the terrific leaders or CEOs that I meet aren't talking about themselves or how great and smart they are. It isn't all 'me, me, me.' They talk about their team, how they can make a bigger impact through their work, how they can learn from past mistakes. I think that level of authenticity and real courage is necessary to be a strong leader.

Check out:

Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford credits her career success to advice she got when she was 11

The 10 best CEOs for women, according to female employee reviews

One expert's message to Black women burned out at work: 'Workplace DEI is a company issue, not yours'

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