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Three strategies for women to reach a leadership position

By guest contributor Maja Korica

Research in 2005 found that 30 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs were 6ft 2in tall, even though only 3.9 per cent of the US population was. Another study discovered that deep voices led to better pay.

woman at desk at work on computer
Photo by Keren Levand on Unsplash

‘Think leader, think male’ is a persistent mindset, which remains a key stumbling block for women looking to reach leadership or management positions, or progress substantively in their careers. And it continues to show, for instance, with only 14 female CEOs currently in the FTSE350.

Not only does it mean that women have to put in additional effort to overcome initial expectations regarding what competence looks like, they also have to do it while not breaching other gender expectations, most notably being seen as caring – and how many CEOs do you know whose primary celebrated characteristic is their caring nature?

As the historian Mary Beard points out in her book Women and Power, this is old news. She adds: “We have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.”

The solution for women isn’t compliance though – it’s changing the template itself. Here are three strategies for women to work against the biases and barriers too often holding them back.

1) Networking

What Herminia Ibarra calls strategic networks – those focused on new business directions and on the stakeholders you need to get on board to advance toward these – are key to career progression.

However, whereas men’s personal and professional networks overlap, women’s are largely separate: we work with colleagues and socialise with friends. As a result, we miss out on the social element that fuels much workplace progress: the dinner conversations and weekend events through which people get to know us and trust is built.

Networking outside your immediate workplace with senior people in organisations is highly important however, least of all for visibility reasons. If you are doing well, it unfortunately matters little unless people are aware of it, especially people with power and influence.

People at work conference
Photo by Evangeline Shaw on Unsplash

So one practical thing we can do is to expand our external networks: beyond our organisations alone, beyond our immediate work and operational circles, and this is important, beyond people like us with whom we ‘click’ personally.

In short: stop cancelling networking events and, when you attend, make sure it is full of people who may make you immediately less comfortable to approach – then still do it.

2) Sponsorship

We know that after a certain level everyone is pretty good at the work itself. What gets you promoted is other people getting to know you as you, not simply as a holder of a title on an organisational chart.

What women need therefore is not mentoring, which is focused on the work itself, but for someone to pick up the phone and keep them in the loop while they are away, so they don’t fall behind with what isn’t being shared over email. For someone to pick up the phone and say, I know so and so, she would be great for this, don’t even think about anyone else.

Such sponsors or advocates are perhaps the most important thing for both visibility and opportunity – the higher, the better.

By spending time with who they are sponsoring, even if they are very different, the sponsors will begin to know them and their achievements much better. This importantly also triggers positive social identification: ‘I’m great so she must be good as well if I am sponsoring her’.

And these sponsors should not just be women – men continue to dominate boardrooms and senior positions. If we want change to happen men will need to play a part as well.

But, as mentioned above, we tend to network and socialise with those like us; what scholars call ‘the similarity attraction paradigm’. Put simply, we are attracted to people who are like ourselves.

For this to work therefore, companies need to step up and create such connections in a structured and purposeful way – you cannot leave it to individuals for more ‘me, me and more me’.

3) Organisational Politics

Finally, whether we like it or not, office politics will always exist. We see them in opportunities made available or denied, conversations had or not had, decisions made or avoided, information shared or hidden until just the right time, including when we least expect it.

So we can either let these be used in ways that work against us, or we can make them work for us. The bigger question is how to put them to work best?

Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of prominent books on power and organisations, made the key point that to make politics work, you first have to understand the power in your organisation: others and your own.

The first step is therefore diagnosis. Organisations are more than just the organisational chart. Some people like senior execs might have formal power; when it comes to access to rare and valuable information though, much less well paid assistants have bucket loads of it too.

Senior execs might know the existing business well, but if there is a new threat on the horizon, a person with unique contributions, say regarding particular geographies or issues, will find themselves with much to offer too. Some of these people may well be your friends or acquaintances at work.

Where is the organisation going? What are senior execs concerned with? What is on the horizon strategically? What is a big emerging problem without an apparent solution? Is there a potential opening ahead for different conversations about promotions or pay?

Put your informal power networks to work to help you get the lay of the land and decide what you want your action to be. Building those up might involve some political action too. For instance, reciprocity is king. If you come to the aid of someone in their time of need, they are far more likely to extend the courtesy. Personal relationships matter too.

Persistence pays, as does timing. For instance, if you know a certain issue is coming up and pre-occupying much executive time, start building your coalition early. Identify the people who may help you get there, either as valuable collaborators or sponsors, and bring them on board by focusing on shared interests, however temporary.

Two women at a desk discussing work
Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

When the timing is right (that is when the need is acute), appear with a pre-drafted solution, a coalition of the willing, and a compelling story. Don’t go at it alone however, especially if your chosen action is about pay negotiation. In fact, as Iris Bohnet of Harvard University stressed; if you can make it about others, for instance by citing senior managers’ support or negotiating on behalf of a bigger team, great. What also works is positioning it as a benefit for the company – then for you too.

These strategies are undoubtedly hard work but undoubtedly effective. In my view, however, they mean little to nothing if engaging them leaves you as one of the lucky four or 15 privileged few, who then have to comply further to simply stay in place.

Individual success should not equal perpetuating the system further; it should contribute to changing the template. Otherwise our individual success not only imprisons ourselves, it also imprisons others, who have to face the same rugged path to get to where you got.

As Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison put it: “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

This is an edited extract of a longer talk given to the City Women Network at WBS London at The Shard on February 4, 2020. It can be read in full here.

About the author:

Maja Korica is Associate Professor of Organisation and Management and teaches Organisational Behaviour on the Distance Learning MBA and Full-time MBA plus Management of Change on the Executive MBA. She also lectures on the Warwick Diploma in Organisational Change and on Leading and Managing Change on the MSc Business with Consulting.

Follow Maja Korica on Twitter @DrKorica.


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