Nine Steps to Senior Leadership for Women

Although girls outperform boys at school, women are underrepresented at the top of most organisations. At the age of around 30, when career-shaping events happen, many women choose to start a family. Once you step off the fast track, it’s very difficult to get back on.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for a successful career but women can be held back if they don’t have certain types of experiences on their CV. After conducting a research programme which involved 53 in-depth interviews with senior female leaders – many from large, global corporations – we can reveal that there are nine different critical job assignments that can help women to kick-start their careers and break through the glass ceiling.

Many of the findings from this research are equally applicable to men’s leadership development. Let’s look at the nine critical job assignments in more detail:

First off (1) is an early stretch assignment which is a challenging project undertaken early on in a person’s career. This provides visibility with senior decision makers and reaffirms the individual’s personal confidence. Being completely out of your depth technically, building credibility with established experts, taking on significant responsibility and working with the senior management team are some of the defining characteristics of early stretch assignments.
 

“Nothing prepares a leader for running a global organisation as well as having spent some time abroad to personally experience the difficulties of executing projects and delivering results in a different culture.
Next up are a set of broader and grittier roles which include (2) international assignments or global roles, (3) operational roles, (4) people management responsibility and finally (5) working in a different environment. Nothing prepares a leader for running a global organisation as well as having spent some time abroad to personally experience the difficulties of executing projects and delivering results in a different culture. Operational roles, on the other hand, provide a vital understanding of the day-to-day challenges of running a business. Furthermore, with increasing levels of seniority, the scope of projects increases and with it the need for people management. Delivering through others is an essential skill for any leader. Finally, working in a different environment provides the opportunity to demonstrate that a person can deliver outstanding results irrespective of the environment in which she (or he) operates.

As women move from middle to senior management levels, a key challenge is to make your name and establish your brand. With a broad base of experiences now secured, the individual now needs to find an area of leadership ‘specialisation’. Three roles seem to be particularly effective here: first of all, being a (6) corporate intrapreneur and creating a new product line, business department or organisation-wide process. Creating something new is a woman’s opportunity to demonstrate her entrepreneurial spirit in a corporate setting.

The second role (7) is being an organisational change agent. Examples of organisational projects include mergers, large-scale downsizing, or re-engineering projects. As change is a major element of corporate life, having proven oneself as an effective change agent is an important tick in the box on the way to the top for women. The third making-your-name role is that of the (8) turnaround pro who can revive failing businesses back to profitability. Turnaround experts deal with urgent crisis situations that require immediate and drastic action. While all assignments have to be executed with pace, turnaround projects are a step up from the more orderly and proactive organisational change assignments.

At this point, we have reached the journey through the glass ceiling to the executive level. (9) Joining the executive team is the last critical job assignment for senior women leaders on their executive journey. Joining the executive committee of a FTSE100 company is an impressive achievement for anyone, and particularly so for women. Many interviewees in our research study faced this big step up with some initial self-doubt as to whether the new role could be mastered. They talked at length about building relationships and how the difference between women’s and men’s styles of interaction can create barriers. These barriers were mostly overcome by women taking the first step to deal with the differences by building relationships.

Practical steps

The research also highlighted a set of practical steps that successful senior women have taken. These include:

  • Actively looking for challenging assignments and being prepared to take a risk with a new role even if it initially looks daunting
  • Building a strong network of contacts – many of the interviewees stayed in touch with former bosses and colleagues – to allow women to identify opportunities and find advocates for herself and her work
  • Developing a curiosity for different parts of an organisation and being prepared to try new things. A breadth of different experiences provides a strong foundation for a later move to senior management roles
  • Contemplating their overall career goals and being aware of what roles and projects will provide them with the necessary skills, knowledge and contacts to achieve their ultimate ambition. Be aware that some roles (such as international assignments or operational roles) may be more difficult to combine with caring for children or elderly relatives. It’s worth trying to undertake these assignments early.

Dr Ines Wichert is a senior psychologist at the Kenexa High Performance Institute and author of ‘Where have all the senior women gone?’, She can be contacted at ines.wichert@kenexa.com
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