Career Development

Women in Leadership: Why it matters and how to get there

Just four years ago, the then business secretary Vince Cable wrote to senior executives within FTSE companies strongly encouraging them to add more women to their boards. Well its now 2017 and we seem to be no further forward than when Vince was penning letters in 2013.

Just 29% of directors appointed in the UK in 2016 were women, the lowest proportion since 2012 and whilst the proportion of female directors among FTSE 100 companies is 26%, and only 10% of executives at those firms are women. What is more worrying is that these figures show a downward trend from previous years.

It has been proven again and again that when women join boards, it is positive for the organisation.  Designed by Freepik

In a widely-cited 2012 Harvard business review post Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman described their survey of 7,300 business leaders. They asked respondents to rate the effectiveness of male and female managers. They looked at women in leadership roles throughout organizations, and not just in executive positions. They examined 16 different “competencies,” like taking initiative and driving for results, and found that women rated higher than men in 12 of the categories. When it came to total leadership strength, “at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows.”

So how do we get companies to make their boards more inclusive and if you are a woman aspiring for leadership, how do you get there?

For any company when looking at their board and leadership within their organisation, there are several questions that must be asked;

Does the Company have a strategy for building a board that is reflective of the market?

Should the board open up searches to a more diverse pool of candidates or broaden search criteria to consider additional perspectives, skill sets and                           experiences?

Has the board also considered setting term limits to force diversity of thought into the board?

Does the company or the board identify qualified women to pursue as future directors or members of senior management?

Has the company or the board sponsored a woman in senior management to pursue a non executive position with another company?

All companies should continually be aware of the talent that exists within the organization and a culture of self-reflection is to be promoted and encouraged. 

It is by being honest and asking the direct questions that changes can be made.

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So what can we as individuals do? What is it, that if you are sitting there, reading this and wanting to be a leader in your company, that you need to do? Being leader doesn't necessarily mean aiming for the CEO position but also becoming a person of influence within your organisation. Influencing the way that things are done and how to help others as well as perhaps aiming for that seat at the table yourself.

Imposter Syndrome  Designed by Freepik

We have all suffered from it at some stage in our careers or our lives. That feeling when we go for a role promotion, a new job or see an opportunity and want to go for it but think, I am not quite ready for it yet, I need more experience or more qualifications. A study by Dell Inc. showed that men would apply for jobs where they met only a few of the criteria, whereas women would only apply if they met all of them. Also in the study, 12% of male leaders rated themselves among their organizations’ top 5% of performers, while only 9% of women gave themselves that confidence rating. In order to aim for the top, we need to develop the confidence that are experiences and our voices are valuable and worth being heard. There has long been the association that female leaders are less liked than male ones however recent research proves this to be untrue. Results and the ability to do the job are far more important than matching all elements of a job ad. 

If you believe you can meet the aims of any advertised role, then go for it.

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Expand horizons  Designed by Freepik

Look at how you can gain experience in other areas, if you work in finance what do you know about marketing? Do you know why the sales team lost or gained the latest contract? If you work in marketing or design, have you read the latest company accounts, do you know the company assets? It is somewhat surprising to me sometimes how little some senior people know about their own company. I used to work for a high street organisation and one day was meeting the Head of Retail as we were preparing for the national min wage increase as well as an annual review. The retail director said to me in the meeting ‘what do we pay the shop staff?’ and I had to take a pause because I couldn't quite believe that the retail director didn’t know the salary rates for their teams. These are the same rates that are in the shop windows or on our job ads, but she had no idea what the starting rate was and had come to the meeting unprepared.

Whilst I don’t think you need to become an oracle on every aspect of business, expanding your knowledge across the business as a whole rather than just your area of expertise shows your dedication and shows how you can contribute to the organisation. It also increases your own confidence as well as the confidence other people have in you.

Non-Executive Director roles  Designed by Freepik

There are lots of smaller organisations and charities that are crying out for advice and expertise. If you are aiming for a board position within your company or others but have no previous board experience then this is a really good way of gaining some experience whilst at the same time giving back to your community and supporting smaller businesses. These roles are often voluntary but if you can give up a day a month or a day every few months, it is incredibly rewarding and also a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the value you can add at that level.

Be your own publicist  Designed by Freepik

The internet means that getting yourself out there is so much easier than it was, and these days having a presence online is something that everyone has and it can be used to your advantage in the workplace.

LinkedIn is a tool that is still widely used by recruiters and head-hunters. Always ensure that your page is up to date and relevant. Don’t be shy! Post about your achievements and write articles about the topics that interest you.

Attend networking events and conferences. These events are fantastic for meeting people from other industries but also speaking to people who have the same goals and ambitions as you. Share tips, keep in touch. You may meet someone who can assist you but also others whom you can help or mentor as well. 

Supporting each other is how we all move forward.

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Speak or present- if you have an issue or subject that you know a lot about then let people know. A lot of people really don’t like public speaking and it was something that I was very nervous to do myself when I first started, so anyone who puts their hand up and says, ‘I will do that’ is normally welcomed with open arms. It can be nerve wracking so if it is something that you are nervous about, then there are talking groups and speech classes which can be really useful. Doing this gets you recognised for being an expert on a subject but also being a leader. If you can speak confidently about a subject in front of a group, then more people are likely to have confidence in you in other areas.

Industry news – ensure you are aware of anything that affects the industry within in which you work. Where I have seen bad examples of leadership is where someone has made a decision without thinking of the repercussions on other areas of the business. Particularly in times of political change and economic uncertainty, having an awareness of how external issues are affecting your industry is of particular importance.

Awards and recognition - promoting ourselves often feels like boasting and doesn't come naturally to most of us. However, gaining recognition, whether nominated by yourself or others, is a fantastic confidence booster and also enhances your reputation. This all adds to your credibility when applying for more senior positions.

Grit- There was a well-known TED talk delivered by Dr Angela Duckworth wherein she described the research that herself and her team had conducted over several years to determine what was the formula for success. How could you tell from day 1 of a military academy who would be there at the end? Who would finish college and who would drop out? The answer demonstrated by her research is grit. That is, passion and perseverance. Having the passion for something and the dedication to see it through. Cultivating these qualities will ensure that you are able to reach your goals and in turn then help others reach theirs.

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About the author

Louise Mackin

Experienced, driven, and commercially focused Human Resources professional with a background of delivering effective, profitable and innovative HR solutions.
A mentor and volunteer with the Young Enterprise scheme, MBTI qualified and an accredited Mental Health First Aider.

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