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Women's leadership development is critical to talent strategy

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Our talent pipelines are still haemorrhaging women. The gender pay gap speaks volumes and Cranfield University’s 2018 Women on Boards Report, shows a sharp drop in the number of women occupying executive roles on FTSE 250 boards.

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HR teams are working hard at the cultural and systemic changes organisations need to make including women’s networks, flexible working, unconscious bias training etc. Yet we mustn’t forget the power of working at the same time with individual female leaders to accelerate the shift needed.

Why invest in leadership development designed and delivered specifically for women?

It is NOT about;

  • Fixing the girls who can’t cut it
  • Teaching women to be like men
  • Remedial classes for those without leadership potential
  • A series of pep talks and ‘ra-ra’ sessions
  • A chance to have a go at the men
  • A soft and fluffy ‘victim’ environment that isn’t the real world

It IS about better understanding the head wind that women experience in their careers, and learning how to trim our sails to take full advantage of the prevailing winds.

What’s the headwind?

From the Impossible Selves research of Ibarra and Petriglieri through to the extensive research around unconscious bias in the last 20 years, we have much greater insight today into how women step into their leadership identity and what trip wires there are along the way.

The well-documented tension between the expectations of our gender roles (millennia in the making) versus our executive roles (the leadership canon) and how this interferes with what good looks like for women leaders plays out in our organisations and careers. Knowing this doesn’t make us victims, but understanding it does make navigating our working world as women easier.

Challenges include things like:

  • The Double Bind

Too feminine when agreeable, too masculine when aggressive.

  • The Maternal wall

The career cost of childrearing/bearing

  • Prove it again…and again…

The requirement to prove their competence over and over

  • Negotiation penalty

The social cost for women of asking for what they want when it is for themselves

  • Limiting career strategies

Women tend not to use the imitation strategies that men use to practice new leadership behaviours, but tend to default to what ‘feels natural’

  • Feedback and Sponsorship

Women receive less informal feedback and have less access to sponsors

  • Mentors

Male and female mentors tend to approach women with a development rather than a sponsorship agenda

What works for men doesn’t always work for women

Organisations deliver narrow lanes for what is considered acceptable female behaviour because of our embedded biases, making the competence and likeability trade-off challenging to navigate.  These stereotypes, the cognitive shortcuts we all use to make sense of the world don’t always serve us well – men or women. And we know we rely on these autopilots when the cognitive load is high, which is how most leaders live.  It is not done with malicious intent but it permeates our thinking and behaviour.

This means that what works for men in careers doesn’t always work for women, and often what comes naturally for women doesn’t necessarily work for them either.

So women are told to…

  • ask for more!
  • be confident!
  • tone it down!
  • have more presence!
  • get a mentor!
  • watch those sharp elbows!
  • throw your hat in the ring!
  • get a role model!
  • network more!
  • show your ambition!
  • be more visible!

Yet we know when women often embark on those things they are not judged in the same way for the same behaviours.  These exhortations also focus on what women are doing wrong – and we wonder why imposter syndrome is rife.  These mixed messages can shut down women’s aspirations and optimism and throw up real concerns about how they bring their whole and authentic self to their leadership without being phoney or a sell-out.  I have seen that question alone stall brilliant careers in their tracks. Unnecessarily.

What leadership development for women delivers

Women’s leadership development offers an informed, positive, supportive environment where women can interpret the mixed messages they are getting and become deliberate and skilled in their responses. By making the dynamics at play more transparent we are not so caught off-guard and we can be more strategic in our approach.

It delivers an environment where women have the opportunity to be vulnerable and realise they are not hopeless or going mad and have the chance to address any mind sets and self-limiting beliefs specific to women.

Where they can leverage a powerful network. I have heard women so often say ‘I didn’t know anyone else felt like that’ or ‘Oh, so that’s what’s happening there’ while they are also learning to observe and respond for one another. In a meeting where a woman is being spoken over or making a point that isn’t being heard, instead of just fuming about it together afterwards we have the choice to skilfully amplify one another at the table.  As the Kenyan proverb goes: Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.

Transitions are risky

It is critical to have safe spaces for leadership identity development because transitions feel risky as you slip one coat off and put on another, wondering if it is a good fit and if it really suits you, especially with fewer role models women can relate to.  It requires answering some fundamental questions like – Who am I?  What do I want and need? What is the purpose of my leadership? How do I build my resilience? How do I manage and develop my best leadership self? What resources do I have in me and around me to make this happen?

Safe doesn’t mean easy. This isn’t easy stuff – sailing into a headwind takes grit and determination but stepping back and taking time to figure out how to crack the code is important. So we can step back in. And up. It enables us to navigate mindfully, paying attention to what is happening around us AND what is happening within us. To have some fun with it as well because we know people can’t learn in a threatened state. Where through powerful collaborative learning women can help one another practice the subtle dance that is being a powerful leader in an environment that remains ambivalent about women in authority.

And this is relevant at ALL levels. It is really important when women are entering their first or second management role and starting to build their leadership muscle. Then data shows us that gender bias amplifies as we move up the career ladder, where the shift from technical skills to influencing skills is required and where women need to start using different sources of power. We all know at every level there are holes in talent pipelines with women pouring out. Well-designed development for your female leaders can help plug those holes.

No silver bullets

Women’s leadership development doesn’t offer slick formulas or silver bullets. Women are all different, confronting different challenges at different times in their careers and lives. There are a huge number of legitimate paths for women to forge so it isn’t about women conforming or creating cookie-cutter women leaders, or becoming more like the men. Nor is it about replacing one stereotype for another and assuming all women will make collaborative, inclusive, people focussed leaders. The point is to understand and work with, but move outside, our stereotypes.

Yes the system needs fixing, we need to be measuring performance objectively, normalising flexible working, teaching unconscious bias and being much more creative with career tracks. These are institutional, systemic shifts that are important for all HR directors to be working on, so don’t stop working on the system!

But having spent 25 years in leadership development and talent and as much time as a female CEO, I know women’s leadership development is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal for keeping women in that talent pipeline, and in turn delivering your organisation a true source of competitive advantage.

Penny de Valk is an internationally experienced Chief Executive and qualified coach who helps women build powerful professional lives.  Visit her blog for great advice on how to be your best leadership self. www.pennydevalk.com


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