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Women Leaders: strategic yet invisible assets*

Women Leaders: strategic yet invisible assets*

By Kira Porter who can be contacted at http://www.mrg.com


1. Introduction

Today’s corporate stakeholders face a crisis and an opportunity. Research shows two alarming facts:

>> There are still only six women who lead Fortune 500 companies.

>> Women are leaving Fortune 500 companies in droves.

In fact, one woman every 60 seconds starts her own company. That is nearly 1,600 women per day -- twice the rate of men.

This article asks, and briefly seeks to answer, three questions:

# Why is this happening?

# What is the cost to shareholders, to talented women, and to men?

# What can be done to make sure that talented woman leaders are able to advance into positions of influence and responsibility?

2. Why is this happening?

# Implicit Leadership Theory

Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women has sought to answer this question by testing Implicit Leadership Theory, which suggests that men and women more often describe ideal leaders in masculine terms.

One study found that traits used most frequently to describe ideal leaders were "intelligence, honesty, sociability, understanding, competitiveness, independence, rationality, self-confidence, aggressiveness, good verbal skills, determination, and industriousness."

To the degree that these terms carry a more masculine bias, women may have difficulty being perceived as having "high potential" for leadership development opportunities and advancements.

But is this perception of leadership rooted in the organizational realities and challenges of the 21st century? Over the past 20 years, many organisations have become less hierarchical and command-oriented and are now flatter, more matrixed, more complex, and more team-dependent for high-quality results. Therefore the traits needed to lead effectively are also likely to be undergoing change.

Evidence from a number of fronts suggests that women generally may come more easily to the critical leadership skills needed in this new, post-heroic model: communication, emotional intelligence, collaboration, negotiation, entrepreneurship, and coaching and mentoring.

But stereotypes are difficult to change. It may be that popular perceptions about the traits needed for effective leadership have not kept pace with current leadership competencies. If Implicit Leadership Theory is correct, then this nagging "gap" – between traditional perceptions about leadership qualities and current organizational realities – may be preventing organisations from recognizing the critical competencies that women leaders are able to bring to a flatter, more communication-driven environment.

Women were also perceived by some subjects to be more risk-averse than men. Yet the Wellesley research concluded that although women’s comfort level with risk may be lower than men’s, women were equally as effective at taking risks – especially when the women felt that there was a social injustice issue at stake.

2. What is the cost to shareholders, to talented women, and to men?

# Loss of bottom-line profits

The loss of knowledge, expertise, and productivity due to this exodus of women has an enormous impact on businesses today. Labor turnover costs range from 50-130% of an employee’s salary, with leadership positions at the high end of that range. Deloitte Consulting figured this out when

they initiated a comprehensive professional development system to retain and advance women. The programme saved the firm $250 million – and changed the culture enough that the company earned the much sought after title of "#1 employer of choice for women."

Moreover, research shows that the 25 Fortune 500 firms with the best track record of promoting women to high positions are between 18 and 69% more profitable than the median Fortune 500 firms in their industries. These facts point to the hard cost to organisations of failing to train and retain women leaders.

# Access to purchasing power

One significant opportunity for organisations rests in the powerful economic role that women hold. Women’s spending in the United States alone is $5.2 trillion. Women represent 80% of consumer spending and therefore are financial decision-makers. Placing women in leadership, marketing, and product development roles gives a company the strategic advantage to better align with customer needs. On the other hand, failing to do so risks moving the company farther from this potent set of customers.

# Women are task- and results-oriented

One of the largest research studies on gender and leadership (900 comparable pairs of men and women) found that women were more task- and results-oriented than were their male counterparts. This result runs counter to the popular stereotype that women are "relational" rather than task-focused. Specifically, "women scored higher on leadership scales measuring an orientation toward setting high standards of performance and the attainment of results." Women organized work in a more structured way, followed up on objectives, and focused more on results. To the degree that firms fail to recognise this, they risk failing to use an "invisible asset" that can help to deliver tangible results.

# Women build and value relationships

Being able to build internal and external partnerships and motivate teams is increasingly recognised as a critical leadership trait. While many people recognise that women are "good with people," they fail to see this as a skill. Failing to recognise interpersonal skills as a critical leadership competency can lead companies into recruiting strategies that leave them with great technical experts and individual contributors – but low-performing teams and processes.

3. What can be done to make sure that talented women leaders are able to advance into positions of influence and responsibility?

To avoid these pitfalls, organisations and leaders need to take a close look at their models of leadership. An Inclusive Leadership Model is one in which the attributes and skills of both men and women are valued and recognised as being critical competencies in the organization’s strategic plan. Such a model calls for an understanding of gender norms and stereotypes, a commitment from both men and women to open and honest communication, and a collective goal of maximizing long-term organizational success by increasing women’s relative visibility and responsibility throughout the organisation.

In addition to a more inclusive model, there are strategies specific to women and men that may be helpful.

# Success strategies for women

The best method to create both individual and organizational change is to make sure that women’s voices are being heard and valued throughout the company. There are many ways that women can increase their visibility:

>> Identify your skills

Having a solid idea of the expertise and skills you bring to the table is key. Many women (and some men) have trouble articulating their strengths because they have been socialized to downplay their accomplishments and even to "forget" their expertise. Women can start by making a list of the qualities and skills that make them unique, and bearing these in mind especially during periods of difficulty or stress.

>> Build self-confidence

Building your self-confidence starts by valuing the knowledge and expertise that you have. Identify the unique qualities and skills you have that you most value and which are valued organizationally. Then, determine which of those qualities and skills need to be made more public. It is imperative that you communicate your contributions and strengths to others. This can be especially challenging for women who have been taught to not talk about their achievements. Yet this strategy is critical for women who want to achieve and maintain positions of leadership in male-dominated organisations.

>> Find high-visibility projects

Being competent, and able to talk about how competent you are, is not enough. If you want to be given more responsibility, you need to seek it out. Build your network, internally and externally, in order to uncover those sought-after projects. And then ask, when necessary, to be assigned to a key role.

>> Get a mentor; be a mentor

Leaders often cite having a mentor as critical to their success. Women are natural mentors. (In fact, Mentor was the name taken by the Greek goddess Athena, while disguised as a man!) Women can benefit greatly from finding mentors both within and outside of their organisations.

Additionally, being a mentor and sharing your wisdom and expertise with others is beneficial for you and the organization.

# Success strategies for men

>> Protect your investments and strategic assets

As the research shows, companies that invest in and support women’s professional development are more profitable than their competitors that do not. Why leave money on the table and continue to pay the high costs of turnover when you don’t have to?

>> Stay open-minded and curious

Listening to diverse viewpoints can be draining, challenging, and sometimes threatening, because it forces us to reflect on who we are – especially as we relate to other people. Think about when the golf pro tells you that you’ve got some room for improvement. First, you deny it; then you accept it begrudgingly; then you become intrigued about how to improve.

This requires taking a step back and looking at your habits. Then it requires practicing, and asking for feedback from women colleagues. (It’s one thing to read a golf magazine about how to fix your slice, but it’s another thing to go to the range and hit it straight!) Because men tend to have more difficulty than women in listening, one simple but effective goal to aim for is the 70-20-10 rule: Seek to listen 70% of the time, inquire 20%, and summarize 10%.

>> Check your assumptions about women’s aspirations, experience, and skills

Research suggests that stereotypes about gender may be the main reason why women do not get promoted into leadership positions. As hard as it is, check yourself the next time you think, "she doesn’t want to travel overseas," or "she probably isn’t up to the task," or "she has what it takes but she isn’t a strategic thinker." Get the facts to back up those assumptions – by checking with her about her preferences and interests, and by talking with a range of reliable colleagues about her skills and experience.

A Strategic Asset for High-Performing Organisations

Organisations, which recognise that attracting, motivating, and retaining women at all levels, as a critical and strategic need will have an enormous competitive advantage over their competitors.

Companies that have not yet realized the leadership talents that women bring to flatter, more complex and matrixed organisations risk losing profits, customer contact, improved partnerships, and better results. The time for change is now. We should all be asking ourselves the simple, yet profound question: What are we really waiting for?

*Reprinted by permission of Linkage, Inc. who can be contacted at www.linkageinc.com

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Gary Watkins

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