Front-line managers need to focus not only on building skills but also on bolstering aspiration and confidence (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
How can we help more women climb the mountain of career success in conventional workplaces?
Three Bain & Company consultants say it starts with front-line managers.
“As every climber knows, having a seasoned guide – someone who knows the different routes and the terrain – can make all the difference. In the workplace, it’s the frontline managers who walk next to women every day and can exert significant influence on their development as leaders,” Melissa Artabane, Julie Coffman, and Darci Darnell write in Bain Insights.
Top-down assistance is not sufficient. A survey by the consultancy indicates to help women reach the summit, front-line managers need to focus not only on building skills but also on bolstering aspiration and confidence. Specifically, they set out four paths to the summit:
- Tell the great women on your team that they can advance to leadership roles in your firm, and back that up with action: “Believing is half the battle,” they insist.
Many women doubt they can be successful, whether because of their own skills or the hurdles women face. Invest in day-to-day coaching, including specific and workable feedback, explaining where they are doing well, where they need to improve, and how you’ll help as the manager.
Champion high-potential women – advocating on their behalf – rather than just supporting them. And since stumbles on this journey are inevitable, help women to regain their footing and develop momentum again when that occurs.
- Paint many models of success, even if they aren’t yours: There is more than one route to the top, and make it clear to the women you supervise that there is no single stereotype of success. With respect to gender, point to male and female role models that women can learn from and emulate. “Many women cite the lack of role models at the top who are facing similar work and home dynamics. To advance faster and further, mid-career women need to look ahead and not feel stymied by a stereotype of success that doesn’t fit them.
So you can talk openly about your own path but don’t imply it’s the only route. Also, be alert to how you talk about success. Focusing primarily on the hours worked or an aggressive leadership style may lead to incorrect assumptions of what is required for success.
- Make everyday interactions the priority over periodically scheduled reviews: Bain research found everyday moments of truth are more critical to an individual’s long-term career path than career discussions or performance reviews. That’s particularly true for midcareer women, who are 20 per cent more likely to feel uninspired by their work.
Telling someone twice a year they are doing great just doesn’t cut it. “Build aspiration and confidence every day in the hallways and conference rooms,” they advise.
- Support the whole person – not just the worker: Women usually face more challenging work and home dynamics that make it harder to juggle heavy work volumes and work-related stress. “Broaden your professional development conversations. Have open and honest discussions not only about professional priorities but how they fit with one’s personal priorities. Develop a plan for advancement that ensures women can meet both professional and personal goals,” they say. Tackle cultural norms and bias, ensuring women can pursue their career goals while doing what is important to them outside of work.
“Ascending to the corporate heights is a long climb. It takes aspiration, confidence and committed mountain guides to persevere. Women are ready to make the trek. Companies that encourage managers to help women actively navigate the path to the top will be more successful at making the most of the talent across their entire work force,” they conclude.
What Uber tells us about women in tech
Uber is just the latest company apparently caught in the act of discriminating against women in its workforce. “Sadly for many minorities in tech this is an old story,” says Penny Herscher, executive chairman at FirstRain, one of several technology companies she has helped to lead.
On her blog, she says she has worked in the “bro culture” in Silicon Valley for more than 30 years. “I have repeatedly experienced unconscious bias (sometimes not so unconscious), being underestimated, being dismissed, being propositioned etc.,” she notes.
Often the problem tech faces with diversity is thought to derive from the pipeline: Not enough girls liking computers. But she argues there are plenty who actually enter the tech world. Unfortunately, they leave in huge numbers within 10 years because of a hostile environment.
“It is time to set the tone at the top. To insist that boards have at least two or three women on them (not just none, or the ‘we have one so we’re done’ you see on so many boards),” she writes, noting there are executive recruiters who specialize in this area.
“It is also time for boards to insist that the CEO builds a diverse leadership team. This takes real work to find diverse, qualified executives but it can be done in most fields. Uber is just one of many examples where a mostly male leadership team is simply deaf and blind to the issues facing their female employees.”
The phrase “tone at the top” is usually applied to honesty and ethics around issues like accounting. She feels it now has to be broadened by boards to the matter of equal opportunity for all employees. Study the diversity statistics. With respect to women, look at how many are employed at each level and whether women are being paid less than men for the same work. Check whether the percentages of women in leadership at your firm are growing or shrinking.
“It takes a serious discussion on the importance of diversity from the board down to build a world class company in the 21st century,” she says.
Accelerating gender diversity on boards
Looking at the companies in the S&P 500 with the highest percentage of women on their boards, McKinsey & Company consultants Celia Huber and Sara O’Rourke came up with these six critical actions to improve your own board diversity:
- Make a visible commitment to diversity with sustained action throughout the organization.
- Set new principles for decision-making, such as including women on every slate of candidates.
- Look beyond CEOs and other members of the C-suite for directors, which will allow more women to be considered.
- Consider candidates with the right expertise, not just with board experience.
- Expand your network to include more women and explicitly ask search firms for female candidates.
- Cultivate long-term relationships with prospective candidates, building a set of possibilities over the long haul.
“Effectively creating and cultivating an active pipeline of female candidates is arguably the single most important element of a successful board-inclusion effort,” they stress.
- Each morning, send yourself an email with a subject line that lists your top priority of the day. The item, with no message inside, should stay at the top of your inbox throughout the day until the priority is completed, advises productivity blogger Rob Mcleland.
- “Monk mode” is a work style drawing increasing adherents from a wide variety of jobs who, from the time they wake up until noon, effectively put themselves in seclusion, with no meetings, no emails, no phone calls and no texts. Colleagues know if they want to schedule something or communicate with them it must come after noon, notes productivity expert Cal Newport.
- Try the small-drip strategy for the little tasks you never make time for: Identify small blocks of time in your schedule, perhaps 15 to 30 minutes a day, and tackle these non-strategic tasks then, marketing strategist Dorie Clark suggests.
- Amazon founder Jeff Bezos identifies two types of decisions: Type 1, which are non-reversible, and Type 2, which can be changed, similar to walking through a door and if you find you don’t like the room you’re in you can return to where you were. Consultant Kevin Eikenberry says when facing a decision, determine which category it fits. If Type 1, dive in deep and study all the angles. If Type 2, just get started on a path.
- If people in your organization are afraid that breaking from the consensus is bad for their careers, it’s a sign that you need to rethink your approach, says Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor William Barnett. Geniuses make mistakes by going beyond the consensus view. So if your team, like geniuses, breaks with consensus it could lead to big breakthroughs.