Research has shown time and time again that having women at the top is good business sense: firms do better with diversity. So what’s going wrong?
According to executive coach Jayne Harrison, it’s a combination of factors: a lack of role models, poor flexibility and work life balance at a senior level, challenging maternity provision, fewer women in c-suite ‘feeder’ roles and a less effective network.
“Of course, we’re a way off the ideal as yet. In the meantime, women can support themselves by holding onto their authentic selves – don’t try to be a man,” Harrison says. “We’re not all ‘sugar and spice’; know yourself well and play to your strengths – don’t try and fit into an idea of what you think a leader should be.”
Harrison’s biggest advice to women in middle management is to be bold. “Don’t be afraid to demonstrate and coach others in what are often seen as ‘soft skills’. Ironically they’re anything but. Everything today is delivered through people; if you can’t motivate, engage, and support your people, they simply won’t hang around. The ability to nurture, develop, grow and support teams at all levels should play to women’s strengths,” she adds.
These strengths, Harrison continues, are generally EQ, empathy, relationship building and creating great working practices through others not unto others. “I believe the new leadership age requires skills and strengths that play to women’s natural talents.”
The key factor for many women may be confidence and mindset – they simply don’t recognise their strengths and underestimate their competence, says Harrison.
“I often find when coaching women leaders that they don’t recognise their strengths in these areas at all. And it’s not surprising – it’s still a very male dominated environment out there – regardless of your position. I hear of women been talked over in meetings, or ignored completely. Sexism is rife.”
As executive associate coach for Working Transitions, Harrison has supported many women to achieve their career goals, which is why she believes there has never been a better time for women in leadership roles. “We’re entering the ‘social age’ where positional authority alone won’t cut it. More important is how you build your reputation through authenticity, humility, trust, collaboration and mutually beneficial networks . Not through hierarchical, command and control structures.”
Here are Harrison’s insight into career progression for women in this brave new ‘social age’.
Culture and values – does the organisation you work for treat all employees with inclusivity and dignity? If not, use your feet to vote. If your values are aligned then recognise this as a benefit. Who doesn’t want their leader to ‘walk the talk’?
Be very clear about your own value and why anyone should employ you. How long has it been since you last reviewed your skills, achievements, and strengths? WRITE THEM DOWN. Be very clear on what is it you bring to the party. I find working with leaders on the detail of their facets creates improved confidence, self-efficacy and self-belief.
Feedback – keep a regular journal or book of feedback and seek it out regularly. An annual 360 or a Reflected ‘Best Self’ exercise is a great way of understanding where you are in relation to your career ambitions. But just as effective are team one to ones. Creating a team atmosphere of honest feedback also builds trust, reduces ‘blame’ tactics, and creates more inclusive environments.
Understand your ‘dark side’ or what might potentially be getting in the way of your success. Hogan provide a very good psychometric around leadership derailment factors. Self-awareness is key in leadership – whatever your gender.
Mind-set – write a weekly list and include: 1) 3 things that have gone well 2) what have you learned and 3) what are you grateful for. This isn’t ‘happy clappy’ stuff – it is about forging neural pathways of positivity; recognising the positive rather than the negative. This practice has also been shown to improve resilience when things don’t quite go as planned.
Be prepared to talk about what you are good at and what you have achieved. This isn’t about boasting; it’s about letting your organisation know you are engaged, committed, and enthusiastic. I hear countless stories of X got the promotion because they spent longer raising their profile and networking with other leaders. If this overt method doesn’t feel comfortable, find a way that does. Could you use it as a stretch opportunity for one of your team to stand up at Board for example? Treat this as a ‘to do’ item – communicate and be visible. Don’t just assume that everyone knows you’re doing a good job.
Get out there – mentor, be mentored, network, speak and collaborate widely. There’s a whole world out there ready to receive you and also provide support, if we’d only ask for it! Not only that, but it’s a great way of ensuring that you’ll remain current and non-institutionalised. Your manager will thank you for keeping a finger on the pulse regarding the industry you are in.
Pay attention to your self-talk. If your sentence contains ‘should’ ‘ought’ ‘must’ then stop and ask yourself ‘is this really true? I should work for at least 40 to 60 hours as a leader – who says? I should be able to do X, Y and Z myself? Where is the evidence for that? Beware of the pressure your self-limiting talk is putting you under. Sometimes it’s hard to realise when we’re doing this – work with a coach or a trusted advisor/mentor who is happy to challenge your thinking.
Make friends with your ‘impostor’. Impostor syndrome has been described as ‘a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalise their accomplishments’. In early research it was seen as predominantly a syndrome that affected high achieving women (although it is now accepted that men also suffer from this to some extent). Despite external evidence of competence, you might think you are a fraud, you’ll be found out any minute and do not deserve the success you have achieved. This often goes hand in hand with perfectionism – but not always. Raising awareness of the impostor is the first step in coaching and then working to dispel it using a variety of techniques (some of which are mentioned above). The impostor may prevent women taking on more senior roles if they have to do so proactively; particularly if they have ‘happened upon seniority by luck’.