For Women Leaders To Move Up, They Must Be Fully Themselves

I always knew that women were not smaller versions of men, but distinct all on their own. Recently, I found a photograph of me with a few of the female counselors I cherished from the overnight youth camp where I spent many summers. These pictures showed the women leaders to be who they were: strong, compassionate, smart, caring, funny, bold, loyal and ambitious. Young leaders comfortable being themselves. I had looked up to them and imagined growing up to be just like them. The male counselors were talented too, and different.

That’s why I was surprised when my internet search for women-only leadership programs came up with fewer results than I expected. Women’s identities, perspectives and the requirements for women leaders to succeed are different from those of men.

The underrepresentation of women in the C-suite and the boardroom is common knowledge, and less known is the wide gap that exists for all managerial levels. Women are much less likely than men to get promoted. These are signs of unhealthy organizations, and there’s work we need to do.

Here are six considerations for women leaders.

Refine skills traditionally known as women’s ways of leading.

Embrace empathy, compassion, relationship building and collaboration to get things done. These were known as women’s ways of leading not that long ago when they were undervalued, but the business world has caught up now, and it’s common knowledge that without skills of emotional and social intelligence, your career progress will be limited. Don’t consider quieting them. Instead, work to refine them and support other women and men to do the same.

Sharpen your decisiveness, negotiation and authority. 

While we live in a time when soft skills have been renamed “power skills” that reflect their high value, we also need leaders to make decisions quickly, negotiate, be authoritative and take up space. Think of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. She’s a leader among leaders who gained the world’s admiration when she communicated compassion then took decisive action following the mosque shootings in her country by pushing forward with gun reforms.

Observe role models to help claim your leadership identity. 

Find an employer where there are senior women leaders. Observing how women navigate as leaders is purposeful and effective for the process of internalizing a new identity that being a leader at any next level requires. This is doubly true if you fear whether or not you can be yourself at the next level of leadership. You can learn a lot from observing a woman leader who is authentically herself, happy and successfully operating at the level you aspire to.

Acquire two networks, not just one.

To navigate well inside an organization, it helps to work with powerful people at levels higher than your own. Being well-connected is good for men and for women, but women need a second network too. They benefit from a cadre of close women peers who give access to information about the leadership culture of an organization, maybe what success looks like in a male-dominated industry and ways of interacting. Close ties to a group of women account for an average job ranking 2.5 times higher than women whose networks didn’t have those two features.

Negotiate for yourself.

Women ask for things and they do it well. They feel at ease asking on behalf of their division and are less likely to ask for themselves. A telecom leader on a panel told a story about talking with her successor about work. He mentioned in passing that the team meetings were changed to 9:00 a.m. Surprised at this, she asked how it happened because she had perpetually been inconvenienced by having to run a teleconference in her car while stopping at daycare. He said that he had simply announced a time change to the team. She was visibly astonished as she’d never thought to negotiate this for herself and admitted the irony of having earned a strong reputation as a negotiator and first-rate deal-maker on behalf of her company interests.

Attend to your career, not just your job.

With increased artificial intelligence, greater digitization and technological integration, it’s a smart strategy to focus your time on high-value work. Too many women expend lots of energy being sticklers about their work and so forfeit the opportunity to move on to the next thing. Letting go of perfection to release time in your schedule for professional development, strategic thinking and broader networking will get you further.

One of the benefits of living in the era of #TimesUp is that people’s expectations of what is acceptable have changed for the better. To close the leadership gender gap, we continue to want to see equitable policies, programs and services. But now, more women and men regularly call out inequities when women’s voices are missing on thought leadership panels, when solid female candidates are overlooked for a leadership role or when not a single woman director makes the list during film awards season.

Many companies today are betting that their diversity and inclusion initiatives will close the gaps in women’s advancement. This requires looking to attract, hire and assess for promotion. It also involves taking a hard look at the workplace culture to identify the unseen biases and obstacles across the employee life cycle and the commitment of senior leadership to this goal.

What’s often overlooked is the traditional gender-neutral view of what it takes to succeed, as though being a woman is an incidental identity, not a material one.

Women have had lots of practice navigating their likeability with their competence and have had a tough time being seen as both at the same time. It’s one of many double binds, and it belies just how difficult it is. Nevertheless, some men and women still wonder why there’s a need for women-only groups in leadership development. It’s because women, men and organizations will benefit from women becoming fully themselves as leaders.

 

How To Become An Energizer In Groups

I’m participating in Seth Godin’s Marketing Seminar with a lot of other individuals. It expands on his book This Is Marketing. I’ve been reading his blog and books about modern marketing for years. Similar to good marketing practices, influence and persuasion for change are crucial to leadership.

The seminar is designed so that the value we get is dependent on the exchanges we have with our peers. For me, it’s also a laboratory to observe what people do to help each other break through impasses and nudge their peers in the cohort to go further in their thinking.

That behaviour is called energizing and the people who do it are “energizers”, a term Rob Cross writes about. Whether they have the title of leader or not, energizers are informal leaders. They earn their following because people enjoy asking for their view, and many of their ideas are adopted and because of how they make people feel. Knowing how to energize others is valuable wherever we work interdependently with others.

An Energizer’s Impact

Energizers are vital because they encourage greatness, are able to clear the way to see what’s possible and spark others into action. When I work with energizers I often put more discretionary effort into my work. I aim higher and do more because I see that someone cares about what I do, whether or not they share my particular interests and change objectives. They view what I’m doing is important, and they offer me their attention and encouragement in return.

It’s exciting to be in a group with energizers because their energy spreads and others adopt the same behaviours. This serves to strengthen group performance. It’s easy to understand why.

The Skills Energizers Do Well

  • They show up as positive people champions. They may express themselves as persistently invested in engaging with another person and their success. They also might energize by inviting others to think more broadly and more boldly.
  • They ask compelling questions. I’ve observed that people can ask any question on their mind, generate impossible ideas they want to discuss or pull the conversation to where they want it to go without regard for someone’s forward movement. That approach can miss the mark.

What energizers do well is ask compelling questions that are rooted in what the other person needs. For example, a good question turns your focus on the person’s situation or challenge fully. It doesn’t offer a judgement about what you consider to be good or not so good. Also, energizers ask questions that are stripped down. Too many times, a question is really two or three questions embedded in one. That isn’t as effective because the other person can become unclear about what you’re asking. You also flatten the power of the question by lengthening it.

  • Their view of the future is rooted in reality. With every interaction, energizers show that they care enough to contribute and be helpful, not serve as a distraction.
  • They regularly make introductions between people. Energizers link people together either because they are working through the same problem, or they know one person who could help the other. They are super connectors.
  • They are magnificently responsive. They don’t typically bottleneck decisions. Their responsiveness is exciting.

Cultivating A Culture That Promotes Energizers

So how do we create a climate where energizers proliferate? As leaders, we have the opportunity to design group gatherings to deliberately promote energizing behaviours as the group norm.

I lead a group series called Give & Get, for leaders across functions. As the name suggests, participants are guided in an activity to problem solve together, build trust and generate better solutions. They behave as energizers because it’s built into the design of the unique group gathering. You don’t need to have a close relationship with someone to energize them. Energizing behaviours themselves facilitate trust.

In the book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker discourages people who lead gatherings of any type from being what she calls ‘chill hosts’. She goes on to describe situations in which hosts abdicate their role with the purpose of creating a power-free dynamic, though that’s not what actually happens. Power remains, and confusion sets in.

Who Gets To Be An Energizer?

You might marvel at where energizers get their energy. To find the source of it, we can learn from an outstanding musical performer Jimi Hendrix. At Woodstock, band drummer Mitch Mitchell, having never performed in front of a large crowd before, looked out and the audience and was overwhelmed by the sea of people in front of them. That’s when Hendrix invited the band to focus on the audience’s energy – to take it, use it and then “send” it back. They performed for a full two hours without stopping and closed the festival. Energizers like Hendrix draw from what is around them and recycle energy to others.

Anyone can be an energizer. You don’t need to be a charismatic “rah-rah” extrovert. There are many ways to capture people’s imaginations, create a positive connection, and get people to feel hopeful, leading them to action.

Energizers help us to see how easy it is to affect others, one person or a group at a time. Any of us can energize; it’s easier than you think. Visionary leadership is having people see what’s possible to move them to take action. So many of us are seeking to be sparked.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Forbes.com here.   Credit for the image goes to Park Troopers.

The Informal Influencers That Are Key To Making Change

Are you successful at persuading resisters to change?

If you are a leader with a vision, you aspire to make change happen. Yet leaders often misdirect their efforts communicating the change they envision because they don’t pay enough regard to resisters and the influencers who may be able to enrol them.

Years of mapping interactions among people in organizations tell us that people in informal networks have a bigger impact enabling or blocking change than those with formal authority.

So if that’s the case, how do we identify these influencers, if not by title? Here is a brief list of four types of influencers in your network who you need to know about.

The Experts: Among the most influential are these go-to people who are sought out by many for their expertise, information and advice.

The Energizers: They leave people feeling invigorated after interacting with them by making things happen and fostering an environment of possibility.

The Bridgers or Brokers: They span the gaps across groups.

The Liaisons: They span boundaries without any allegiances.

I’ve played many of these influencing roles in my career and learned how to deal with resisters by facing them. Take, for example, the time when I was working in a large financial services organization. I was asked to meet with several groups to solicit their recommendations for a list of resources that would be an integral part of a large change initiative. I was astonished by the strong resistance from these groups because I expected that they understood our appreciation for their expertise and input. Instead, I faced discord and misunderstandings that originated from years past. The groups had become isolated from one another with little or no contact, and they appeared to be resisting the planned change.

Then, something unexpected happened. I dropped my hard focus on the task and spent time with each of them. Gradually, I developed a connection between them. What I did worked. As an intermediary among the groups (bridging), I lessened the resistance and successfully influenced by inviting them to look at and begin shaping the future (energizing).

Researchers Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro tracked years of change initiatives in Britain’s large National Health Service to find out where change agents should focus their energy in their study, “The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents.” They concluded that developing or deepening relationships with endorsers of the change isn’t necessary. These people are already committed based on the merit of the argument for change, so it doesn’t make a difference if leaders have a lot of interactions with them.

Nevertheless, as an executive coach, I frequently see many changemakers meeting with supporters far more than they need to, burning through the scarce resources of time and energy without a lot of return.

Fence-sitters are different. Innumerable political campaigns have taught us the importance of spending time building relationships with these individuals in our networks because they can tip the balance in favour of the change and in so doing, determine the outcome.

So what can you do with resisters? You could leave them alone, and some do, although it may not be wise because they can actively undermine your efforts.

Anyway, leaders have a responsibility to bring as many people along as possible. According to the above study, staying close to resisters could change their view so that they become endorsers when they understand the change as non-threatening. The probability is low if the change is seen as a threat. This means that gaining insight about the reasons for their resistance is key to taking the right action. That’s why it’s a very good idea right at the start to seek out their views so you can address their objections and be sure to frame the purpose of the change and its execution with them in mind.

Boosting the social interactions of change agents with influencers works with some groups, but not in all cases. Where it won’t make much difference is with the resisters who feel threatened. Focus instead on the fence-sitters, identify the boundary spanners and connect with experts and energizers proactively to seek their input and inform them about the change, persuading them of its urgency.

Formal and informal authority coexist at work, but when it comes to making a change, informal influence can matter more than rank.

A version of this post first appeared on Forbes.com.

Photo credit: Thank you to Pavan Trikutam

Networks: How to cross boundaries

It’s likely that you, just like pretty much all of us, have a story of working on a time intensive initiative only to learn that it was already done by another division or group long ago. That “D’oh” moment could have been avoided if someone from your group consulted with other people across divisions. There is no shortage of boundaries in organizational life. Think function, expertise, level, geography, demographics, and sectors. Conversations with others across one or more of those divides would likely have brought to light what the people in your silo didn’t know. What’s more, research tells us what my own experience working with leaders in multiple industries over the length of a career has borne out. That a great majority of leaders at every level recognize that it’s critical to manage across groups and teams, although very few view themselves as effective in this way. Managing across means generating commitment for direction and securing alignment across relevant boundaries. There are also other reasons to promote connectivity with individuals across in and outside of your organization. Insular networks can miss innovation opportunities. They lose out on fresh ideas and the detection of early signs of trends, and risk overextending into areas where they know little. Closed groups are also deaf to how they are perceived by others. So it begs the question – since we stand to gain when boundaries are crossed, what’s in the way of bridging across divisions?

On being closed.

First we need to recognize that there are, not surprisingly, reasons for closed groups. Individuals enjoy high trust where they converge about their interests and shared views. In the walled gardens I know, engagement among members is high and the safety among them enables people to speak plainly with one another and push to realize greater outcomes. Specialization too plays a role in keeping closed networks persistent. There are many sectors that have a history of isolated clusters shaped by professional specialization. Each area has its own jargon, customs and behaviours, developing under its own historic forces. Many individuals work very hard to overcome the challenges that surface in interprofessional work. And then there are the challenges that organizational structures present that keep closed groups intact, not least of which is the hierarchical design where the traditional focus is to manage up and down, with less attention from leaders to manage across.

So what can you do?

Here are a few strategies for you to consider to span boundaries that address a gap.

Face your own competency traps.

Herminia Ibarra, professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD, calls competency traps those things we enjoy doing because we are so good at them, but that keep us from learning new things because we perceive it as too costly. We have a choice of either resisting or selecting to move from the fast well-trodden lane of competence to the slower learning lane where we have more room to grow. Staying comfortable with the people we know and trust won’t bring us differentiated strategic solutions or the benefits of unity that coordination can bring, only moving between lanes will.

Examine your group from the inside and out.

As a group member, look at it from the outside in and ask if your group’s defined boundaries of work responsibilities are clear to others outside making it easy to be invited to be consulted or collaborate? Further, are there ways in which your group can make learning about other groups routine? Viewing your own groups in this way may reveal opportunities for greater group definition and differentiation that make connecting across divisions far more attractive and easy.

Look further beyond your operational network.            

Organizational players pay attention to getting the job done. Heads down and sleeves up, they are busy managing daily pressures. Without a mindset to carve out time to build relationships with others beyond the day to day operations, leaders miss out on peripheral informational flow and the insights of emerging trends that are available from a broader network. It’s not possible to create a viable strategic plan that looks out to the future without drawing information from social connections outside the organization.

Take action and find common ground.

If you are looking to cross any of the divisions of functional lines, expertise, level, geography or whatever the boundary, first identify the decision makers, key opinion leaders and those in the periphery that might have been hidden from your view. Get curious. Introduce yourself. Offer to meet. Forge a common ground by which to begin to build your relationship. Value from those with a different area of specialization or a different industry or sector can come fast or it may arrive more slowly needing your patience.

In either case, the role of the boundary spanner is critical and is valued by organizations. Linking across boundaries is the start of informative exchanges that will build trust and dividends over time. It’s useful too for your own learning, for decision-making, and for personal growth to get support from people not directly involved in your work. It’s a good idea to start by defining your network goals and setting a plan to broaden your social network before you think you need to because like many things in life, its value grows over time when you give it attention.