An outdated dialogue
I am looking forward to the conversations that International Women’s Day will bring this week. But in preparing for several events, I have been reflecting on this year’s theme #BeBoldForChange. And it has unsettled me. Not the theme, but rather the current women in leadership dialogue and how far it is removed from this rallying cry for courage and fearlessness.
Just before Christmas, I attended a roundtable discussion on women’s career progression and my heart sank when the usual advantages of women as leaders were rehearsed yet again: empathy, team spirit, participative leadership. These female leadership strengths are important and there is good evidence for them - McKinsey’s Women Matter series and Professor Alice Eagly’s work are just a few examples that document these leadership qualities well. However, this argument has long been made and it is time that we expand the dialogue to include the realities of the VUCA world.
The demands of rapid technological change
86% of IT executives expect rapid changes in technology over the next 3 years. Digital transformation, machine learning and the beginnings of artificial intelligence are going to continue to impact the way we work and do business. In this environment, we need a new skill set. Bob Johansen and John Ryan mention, for example, the need for a maker instinct (the ability to grow things), rapid prototyping, clarity, and the ability to immerse yourself in unfamiliar environments and learn fast. The women in leadership dialogue must recognise women as agile leaders, innovators and senior executives with the ability to take clear decisions in times of uncertainty and complexity.
Learning by doing
These skills cannot be learned in the classroom or through e-learning modules. Let’s take innovation. Steven Johnson, an American popular science author, describes new ideas as a network, a new configuration of something that has never been in existence before. New ideas are often brought together from different ideas and the different people we meet. Ideas don’t happen at the lab table but we meet and discuss with others. Often, ideas have very long incubation times. If ideas take the input from different people and different disciplines then we need to expose our future female talent to a broad range of experiences across functions, companies, or country.
There is also anecdotal evidence that the earlier we start exposing our most talented emerging leaders to a variety of different challenges, the better. Rotation programs for university graduates in which young employees cover two to three different projects over an 18 to 24-month period, and where each project is completed in a different function or country, these graduates seem to continue to progress faster after the programme has finished than their colleagues who didn’t get this early cross-functional experience. As reasons for this continued speed of progression, observers identify an increased appetite for new projects, better networking within the organisation, and cross-organizational understanding of the business.
This brings me back to this year’s theme for International Women’s Day #BeBoldForChange. First, we need to help women be bold and take risks with new roles. This is where mentors and role models can play an important role. Research for my last book Where Have All the Senior Women Gone? clearly showed that the women who kept progressing had mentors who continually encouraged them to apply for their next role; in many cases, much earlier than the women felt ready to do so.
We must also encourage managers to take risks on non-traditional candidates and give them a chance to prove themselves. Good HR processes can make a big difference. These includes, among others, advertising all roles, including one-off special projects; using objective assessment methods rather than subjective gut feeling when making recruitment decisions; using data to identify bias in the recruitment process; and setting requirements for the percentage or number of women on candidate shortlists.
Lastly, we must encourage organisations to create safe environments for experimentation and trying new things. Senior leaders have an important role to play in this. Demonstrating humility and acknowledging personal mistakes can help others in the organisation do the same and to learn that it is OK to try new things and learn from occasional mistakes.
Let’s #BeBoldforChange and update the women in leadership dialogue to the realities of our VUCA world.
This article was first published on 6th March 2017 on LinkedIn