Post Written by Jenn Lofgren
Founder, Incito Executive and Leadership Development. Helping reactive leaders become strategic and inspiring leaders.
The cause of gender equality in the corporate world has gained momentum. Women’s leadership and mentorship groups are increasing. Women are becoming better represented in front-line and mid-management roles. However, I’m not sure that I’ve seen an increase in women leading in executive roles just yet.
I’m an advocate for both men and women in leadership. I remember being with my daughter a few years ago at a National Geographic Live speaker event with a woman marine biologist. When the scientist showed a picture of herself on a ship with over 15 men and no other women, my daughter leaned over and said, “Do you think I could do that one day?” It reinforced to me that if you can’t see it, it’s hard to believe you can be it, whether in the science field, leadership or anything else.
As a leadership and executive coach, I focus heavily on equipping individuals with the skills and mindset they need to be effective in a leadership role. Promotions into executive roles take candidates’ career experiences as well as their well-roundedness as leaders into account. These candidates are usually in the mid-to-senior phases of their careers.
What we do not take into consideration is that women may also step out of the workforce temporarily around this time if they are choosing to grow their families. Not every woman has the same experience, but the reality is that often women take on much of the child-rearing responsibilities, especially early in a child’s life. This has a significant impact on the decisions women make for their career and the opportunities they’re offered, as a result.
What can we do from a societal and a business perspective to acknowledge this?
We must look at different approaches to the roles that we all play in and out of the workplace. Supporting both men and women to be on track toward leadership and, eventually, executive roles requires organizational changes to understand needs and identify barriers that keep an individual from putting his or her hand up.
Provide Opportunities To Develop Diverse Experience
Executives become well-rounded leaders because they are given the opportunities to grow their skill sets earlier in their careers. Companies must give men and women equal opportunity for exposure and development to be ready to step into executive roles.
A common misconception is that you need to specialize or narrow your focus earlier in your career in order to become an executive in your field. While knowledge in your specialty is important, diversity in experience is an asset in an executive role. Someone who wants to one day become an executive should expose themselves to as many business areas as he or she can. An awareness of the bigger picture can empower you to put your hand up for a senior leadership role. This means it is up to us, as leaders and peers, to provide our colleagues with ample exposure to different learning opportunities.
Be Wary Of Biases
Organizations must also address the unconscious systemic biases working against the upward mobility of women. I once worked with a woman executive who was taking over for a retiring male vice president. As she presented at a meeting in which they transitioned their roles, the attendees directed their questions to him and not her, which he answered.
It was not until after the meeting that she expressed how this action undermined her credibility, and he realized the impact that he made by innocently fielding the questions instead of deferring to her.
Women Leaders: Set Yourself Up For Success
Life as an executive can be demanding for anyone, and it can get lonely. Women, in particular, tend to “buck up” in these roles, feeling like they have much more to prove as an executive. They may either end up becoming too much of a people pleaser and not stand up for themselves, or overcorrect and are then perceived as aggressive.
Here is some advice I can give in this instance:
• Surround yourself with a diverse set of mentors and peers, both men and women. Have a personal organizational chart or “board of advisors” of mentors, peers and supporters in various aspects of your life. From there, identify gaps, if any.
• Learn to have hard conversations, balancing directness and empathy.
• Create and reinforce strong boundaries for yourself and your team, including time management.
• Develop your critical thinking and systems awareness through exposure to as many business areas as you can.
• Build your personal resilience to step into difficult situations.
• Hire an executive assistant if your role allows it and be willing to embrace other forms of support, too.
It gets political, and it gets messy. That’s just leadership. Learn to let it roll off you rather than consume you. The most important advice I can give is to not base your identity on your executive role. We all have lives outside of work, and those parts of our identity are just as, if not more, important than our careers. Setting boundaries for yourself is crucial here.
One of my favorite stories on this is from former PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi. The day she was promoted to president, she came home to her mother who asked her to go out and buy milk before learning of the news. No matter our accomplishments, when we go home, we leave that part of our lives “in the garage,” as she said.
In the blog post she wrote telling this story, Nooyi said: “Now, I’ll admit, I’ve found it’s rarely possible to be the kind of mother, wife, employee and person you want to be — all at the same time. Often, you need to make a choice, and that’s especially true if you want to be CEO. There’s no way around it.” We must work to ensure that we are empowering both women and men to be able to make these choices.
Read Full Forbes Article HERE.