You don’t have to look very far to find an organization seeking workforce diversity, particularly when it comes to women in leadership positions. It may take further exploration to find one that is successful meeting that goal.
Many of these well-meaning organizations are good at supporting women’s aspirations, and even putting in place programs that both encourage and assist women who want to move up the leadership ladder. What they are less successful at (in some cases even fail at) is preparing the organization itself, through policies and practice, to accept those who may not look, think, or act like the current male-dominated leadership ranks.
It is not enough for an organization to provide time and resources for women to learn technical, problem-solving and other skills. It must also create an environment that embraces not just “what” decisions women make, but also “how” they make them.
We women have qualities and abilities unique from those men bring to the workplace. We, for example, are apt to bring emotion (not a bad thing) into the decision-making process far more frequently than men. We may also be more optimistic and less skeptical about outcomes. Unless an organization’s leadership recognizes, accepts and embraces these traits, women aspiring to the top organizational rungs will continue to get mixed messages: yes, we want you to rise, but to do so, you have to act more like us, men.
To some extent, that messaging is understandable. What role models do women have? When we look around the workplace, and especially in the c-suite and boardroom, we see men. On rare occasions, and usually under duress – the NFL’s domestic violence issue, and American Apparel’s sexual harassment scandal come to mind – we are brought in for our sensitivity and unique views on such matters (or, cynics might say, it is just window dressing to obscure an ugly chapter in an organization’s history).
If you believe the words Walt Kelly – the creator of comic strip Pogo – puts in the mouth of one of his characters, “we have seen the enemy and he is us” – what can be done to tap into this underdeveloped pool of executive talent?
Provide at least some in-house success stories and role models. Don’t wait as the NFL, American Apparel and others have, until the crisis hits before bringing us and our unique perspectives into highly-visible roles. Organizations need women’s influence in the decision-making, policy-making process way before that happens. With women in the c-suite and boardroom, some of those crises may even have been avoided.
And what happens once we women see reflections of ourselves at the top of the organization? Who champions our move to those heights? Mentoring helps. Sponsors are better!
Assigning an established woman leader to work with a current female manager at a lower level within the organization, either formally or informally, can pay dividends.
What does the organization gain for recognizing, encouraging and mentoring future women leaders? It could gain a good deal.
In 2012, leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman presented a study on workplace leadership effectiveness. It found that, in overall leadership effectiveness, women scored 54.5% and men 51.8%.
When women see other women making decisions and being rewarded as leaders, they are more likely to step up and bring their views to department-level meetings, influence projects, provide strategic insight and, in general, step out of the shadows with less fear of making a career-limiting mistake.
And organizations should encourage such actions. By doing so, they will uncover potential leaders in some of the nooks and crannies that have historically gone unnoticed.
Jan Molino is the CEO & Managing Partner of Aspire Ascend, a service provider and member-based organization, that helps women advance toward leadership. She is an experienced speaker and facilitated numerous forums and panel discussions on this subject. Jan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.