Bring out the Best in Female Leaders
Feb 5th, 2018
“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat.
Just get on.”
This year has seen a significant rise in the number of women executives I am coaching which is encouraging given that 2018 marks several significant milestones for women, including 100 years since (some) women were given the vote and 150 years since women in Britain were first admitted to higher education.
The performance and ROI benefits for organisations of having women in top positions are well established. Julia Irvine quotes in the Economia “Where companies have at least 25% females on their executive committees, their profit margins are almost double compared to those with none,” … If all FTSE 350 companies performed at the same level as them, they argue, the impact could be a £5bn gender dividend for Corporate UK. However the reality is that the percentage of women on FTSE 350 executive committees has remained stubbornly low at 16%.” (https://economia.icaew.com/en/news/july-2017/number-of-women-in-ftse-350-board-pipeline-stagnates)
What fascinates me in my work with female executives with ambitions to board level promotions and beyond is how a number of relatively straightforward changes on the ground can make a big difference. The topic is vast but here are three key things organisations and individuals can do to bring out the best in their female talent:
- Promote a mind-set of diversity
I have seen first-hand during my strategy sessions with clients the difference it makes having diverse talent round the table – companies are able to identify different opportunities for growth and approach problem-solving with an array of perspectives. In a recent set of meetings with staff prior to a strategic management review, I was struck by the innovative ideas of the youngest member of staff, who happened to be female, regarding business development digital strategies. This subject was not her remit, however she made some valid contributions and her ongoing input is now part of the strategy reviews on business development. Diverse voices bring new perspectives to strategy generation and problem solving.
- Offer opportunities for challenge
Executive search firm Egon Zehnder analysed the data it gathers during the executive selection process that rates candidates on competence and potential. They discovered that women scored higher on three of the four hallmarks of potential – curiosity, engagement and determination – yet they scored lower on five of the seven key leadership competencies, particularly strategic orientation and market understanding. They concluded that women need to be given more roles and responsibilities to hone their critical competencies. Women may not put themselves forward for new challenges so you should actively encourage and offer stretch opportunities.
- Recognise that women hold back
The CEO of a current client wants her to be on the Board. She, however, wants to make sure she is 100% ready before accepting. I am working with her to help her understand that she is already ready, to prepare her conversation with her CEO, and to prepare her to take up the position. Knowing that ‘imposter-syndrome’ can be very real for women has meant this organisation is providing the coaching support she needs, because they want to benefit from her talent. Equally, one of the known challenges for women is being heard in a meeting room of predominantly male voices. A female client board member is a bright star yet is often the quietest person on the board. When she is asked for her contribution, her comment is insightful and valuable and makes a considerable difference to the decision making. The CEO is astute and ensures he asks her for her contribution – this continual invitation.
Even the most talented and successful women I work with can sometimes hold themselves back, whether because of confidence, wanting to be fully sure they are capable of the job before committing or taking the view that “I do a good job, why do I need to tell others.” Or it may be some simple demeanour habits that dilute their impact. Ask yourself: who are you going to be?
- Be clear on your career vision and what you want
Working with a senior male executive recently, it struck me how clear he was about where he wanted to be in 18 months-time. It is less common for me to hear the same level of precision from my female clients when we start working together. Clarity enables you to focus your attention on what you want – to spot the gaps in your skills or experience and taking action to move forwards. And clarity enables you to make clear requests to your superiors about your aspirations.
- Clarify expectations, be determined
In my experience women are very determined and resourceful. Yet I am struck by how many times, when they have been told they are not yet ready for promotion, they do not probe further. Ask your manager: “What would you need to see for me to be ready?” And ask when can you meet again to discuss it. A client recently asked what would it take to get the promotion and was told clearly she needed to build stronger relationships with two key stakeholders. She agreed a follow-up meeting in six months. The need was clear, she took the necessary steps and six months later she got the promotion.
- Build your reputation
How often do we hear women say: “I’m used to doing it but I don’t go out to tell the world”? Reputation is reality – at one of my client organisations, peer-to-peer feedback is factored into the performance appraisal, in other words, people are rated on their reputation even if their peer does not have direct experience of working with them. There are three key points here. Firstly, being good at your job requires you to take a broader perspective – build relationships, know more about the business. Secondly, if you do not like talking about what you are doing, build advocates who will share your success on your behalf. Thirdly, become aware of how you communicate, and how you can unknowingly adopt certain demeanours that undermine your influence. One of my clients used to make a clear statement, then negate her authority by over-qualifying the statement which was not required and added no value. I encourage clients to develop muscular language. Which is more powerful – to say ‘I think’ or ‘I recommend’?
Justin Trudeau, whose country has the presidency of the Group of Seven industrialised nations in 2018, said gender equality would be a priority in “everything the G7 does this year.” What if you and your company did the same? Commit to practical and attainable steps in your personal development or that of your female executives and see the benefit as women’s talent comes to the fore.
Potential Plus International runs bespoke team and individual coaching programmes for ambitious and progressive companies that want to be the best in their field. For more information on the work we are doing on Women in Leadership please contact Oona Collins at www.potentialplusinternational.com.