CAN WOMEN LEAP HIGHER UP THE MANAGEMENT LADDER

“For real change, we need feminine energy in the management of the world. We need a critical number of women in positions of power, and we need to nurture the feminine energy in men.” Written by Isabelle Allende, world famed Chilean author.

Author: paal / Paal Leveraas; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: paal / Paal Leveraas; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I was recently invited to do a presentation to a group of women managers involved in a Leadership Acceleration Programme (LEAP) that had been built to help create a workplace environment that would enable them to compete more effectively for increasingly more senior management roles, in their large global company.

The issue they were trying to address was mainly based on the fact that whilst they did already have women in about 30% of their management population, the majority of these were in first level management roles, and the percentages diminished rapidly the further up the ladder one travelled.

Author: SOIR; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: SOIR; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I have generally been against mandated gender equality programmes and particularly against externally enforced quota systems(see “Stupid work fads” posted 5 September, 2011), but as this programme was more focussed on working towards trying to level the playing field, I agreed to participate.

In my presentation on “How to manage your career” as well as my generic “3 golden rules” of career management that I always stress of “don’t do a job you hate, don’t work for a boss you can’t respect, and don’t work for a company you can’t be proud of”, (see “People join companies but leave managers” posted April 8, 2013), I also covered some areas that I felt would be specific to their situation, and those that I feel that men on a management ladder tend to do better than the women with whom they compete.

Two critical ones were:

1. Find a champion

I have generally found that successful male executives have had a champion during critical times in their career. I believe that having a mentor is important, but even more advantageous is having a champion in a very senior role in the company. Someone who can, and who will, help to accelerate a career is a serious asset. From my own experience, I have seen a fairly competent, but not necessarily world shattering, manager move in just a decade through the ranks of country manager to regional President to company CEO. This was because of the then current CEO championing his every move into his own successor role, forgiving his transgressions and failures along the way, because of the champion’s unfailing belief in his own succession plan. In my own early career, I have had a boss who stepped aside so I could climb past him because he believed I would make a better CIO than would he, thus launching my management career. Later on, I was fortunate to have a President of a global company who believed that I could be more than a small country CEO, and started to build my broader experience with some critical and highly visible global projects.

Author: François Fénelon (1651-1715); via Wikimedia Commons

Author: François Fénelon (1651-1715); via Wikimedia Commons


2. Build a brand

Men have long understood that it is important to build their brand and reputation, in much the same way that successful companies do for their products. This means that it is not enough to be a successful manager, it is also important to be seen to be a successful manager. This cannot be achieved if you are seen as just “blowing your own trumpet”, but building one’s reputation is a critical part of career progression, and you can rarely do it just through self-promotion. You achieve it by doing your job well and then by doing more than the current role demands. You can help build your brand, for example, by becoming a net contributor of talent for your whole organisation, rather than trying to hold on to your best people to fuel your own immediate success. The more people from within your own organisation that can move on to senior roles in your company will help to build your reputation as a skilled and capable people developer and manager, as well as spreading your own “acolytes” through the organisation. You can also help to build your brand by becoming a spokesperson for your company in areas that will give you not only visibility, but that will also establish you as someone who can represent your company well to the outside world. As most people, including senior executives, fear public speaking more than death, it is usually not hard to step into a role such as this (see “How to give a great speech” posted 21 March, 2011 and “How to really give a great speech” posted March 24, 2011).

I believe that the business world cannot continue to protect the upper echelons of management as a predominantly male bastion.

When it comes to education, in the UK, 45% of eligible women will attend university versus 40% of eligible men, women now make up over 55% of university attendees and outnumber men in most courses including law and medicine, as well as outnumbering men in the number of graduates that achieve upper honours degrees by 64% to 60%.

In the US, whilst 46% of eligible women will go on to college, only 36% of men will do so. Based on current attendees, by 2015 women will represent over 60% of Bachelor’s and Master’s degree graduates and 58% of PhD’s.

The reality is that we all need to face up to the fact that women in the business world are here to stay and that the companies who are quick to take advantage of this simple fact and the advantages that women can bring to management roles, will be the ones who benefit the most quickly.

Author: Asa Mathat / Fortune Live Media; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Asa Mathat / Fortune Live Media; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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6 Responses to CAN WOMEN LEAP HIGHER UP THE MANAGEMENT LADDER

  1. Charlotte says:

    Les, thanks for this. It’s a topic I am passionate about and it’s great to see you addressing it. Companies seem to be doing a decent job of addressing the ‘what needs to be done’, but seem less good at the ‘how’. I witness lots of well-meaning but scattered programmes, not necessarily comprehensively joined up so that they actually form systematic change. I know we disagree on this, but I do think quotas may have to be the way forward in order to imprint systematic change.
    Otherwise, we are waiting on goodwill and changing mindsets, and that is happening far too slowly.

    • leshayman says:

      Charlotte, I know that progress is slow but I still dislike quotas, as they create artificial situations, and when they don’t work well, as has happened quite a bit in Norway, it enables the naysayers to justify their antagonism to women in senior roles. I still strongly believe that Sweden did not do quotas but focussed on levelling the playing field, and now have 50% women on state owned company boards and over 23%, and growing, on private company boards… a lot better than the 10% European average (if one excludes Norway). Les

  2. Beth says:

    Les, it’s interesting that you should bring this up. I find it ironic that the majority of executive boards simply do not represent the population of their companies, meaning the ratio of male to female. I agree with you that mandating these roles is not the answer. However, I have yet to see an MBA program that focuses on building a personal brand or finding champions for woman in the work place. This is a skill set that does not come easily to most professional women. There needs to be a way for us to get this skill set. This issue may also relate to cultural norms among woman. Typically, Woman who have fought their way to the top have done so through some significant hard work and often times they do not think about being the advocate for other woman. This is very disappointing considering what Woman bring to the work place and the talent that is being missed in organizations around the globe. I heard of a recent study that showed that executive boards that had more a balance of male and female were more fiscally responsible and overall more stable as an organization. I am not advocating for the pendulum to swing the opposite direction, however balance on executive boards seems to give us the best result.

    • leshayman says:

      Beth, I agree that business schools do not address the issue, but then I feel that many MBA courses miss other marks as well. I believe that the answer starts at the top in companies, and will only work when the CEO/Board drive any LEAP type initiatives. Leaving them as HR initiatives is a start, but give them significantly less chance of success. Senior managers need to be trained, and measured, on their ability to ensure that recruitment and promotion are gender neutral. I have long believed that the answer to most business issues are great managers leading great people. It is the weakest managers who only build in their own image. Good managers hire and promote people who will challenge them irrespective of gender or other differences. Les

  3. Les, in agreement with most of what you say here. My own personal advice to women who reach out to me ‘quit complaining, and think about what it takes’ and find your own personal balance of whether you are willing to give up something to get something. It is a long hard road when you want to achieve a goal – and this is not gender specific – men have the same equation to think about as women, the attributes may differ.

    While i agree on the net talent contribution function of a manager, how do you deal with getting penalized for recruiting, managing and growing best talent, letting them spread their wings – penalties that include losing head count or getting called out for turnover. Shouldn’t HR systems and practices evolve to measure net talent contribution?

    • leshayman says:

      PMR, I strongly believe that managers should be rewarded for creating talent for the whole company and not just for themselves, but as long as the talent is “spreading their wings” rather than just running away from their manager. Les

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