Women are still under-represented at the top, and there is much to be done to make leadership in any which sector more reflective of its workforce. As such, Tim Taylor, MD of Making Great Leaders, offers eight tips for success.
"Every time you look at the business and see a possible improvement, is a time to act"
(1) Own your space
You have the right to be at the table because your opinion is unique and especially important when you are the only woman in the group. Express what you think and challenge the status quo. Trying to be liked and conforming to the norms of a senior team will only perpetuate the previous performance levels. You can make a difference by looking at the issues with fresh eyes.
(2) Don't loose your femininity
The worst advice I have ever heard is act like a man to get ahead. You don't have to act like a man, quite the opposite, having your perspective and sensitivities can change how others respond to business issues and to each other. When a woman becomes part of a senior team she has the opportunity to change the dynamic for the good of the business.
(3) Focus on how the team acts
Management teams revere managers who solve problems; but they are missing an important and highly valuable step that comes from the innovation that is generated by a team solving the problems. The ability to recognise problems caused by individual heroics, can sensitise the management team to changes in the overall situation and the importance of anticipating potential snares and find more innovative solutions.
For example, in one company we worked with, two C-level managers competed to have the best solution, and spent their time sparing, which excluded the other C level managers from having a meaningful input. This became a testosterone-fuelled sport over time. It took a simple observation from the only female member of the team to change this behaviour. The team learned the value of all the members as a consequence.
(4) Take on stretch projects
Steve Jobs used to say: “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
Every time you look at the business and see a possible improvement, is a time to act. Whether it’s a new initiative, a change to an operating process, a new product idea or a new way to attract talent your action will require courage to deliver because you will need to challenge your colleagues’ perceptions and win the support of key stakeholders. You will hear “no” more often than “yes, great job” so as Jobs said, have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition.
(5) Form a network of like minded women
Chose a mix of women from outside your company and use this forum to brainstorm and solve business problems. Men have had clubs like this forever, they use these spaces to share problems, find solutions and vent frustrations. A peer group is immensely powerful when you use it to discuss real issues and support each other to find creative solutions. This is not a call to set up a group of misandrists, hating men may feel good for a while, but it adds no value to your leadership.
(6) Building your brand as “trusted and reasonable”
Great leaders are perceived as reasonable for a number of reasons. They understand their own values and create personal performance standards that govern how they react and respond to others. When people learn that they can trust you not to overreact, and act consistently with the values you espouse, you will become known as wise counsel. This doesn’t mean that you can’t show anger or passion, it just means that the people around will learn, with certainty, what you stand for.
(7) Making vision your top priority
One of the universal laws of change states permanent change requires a vision. Many change efforts aren’t successful because they are not connected to a vision that helps people see the future value of today’s efforts. Leaders who do this well have a commitment to their vision and getting robust feedback that allows them to navigate problems.
Poor leaders may have a vision but become afraid of feedback. In the words of Billy Joel, "they will not listen to anyone so no one tells them a lie”. Making your vision a priority means listening to feedback, good, bad and ugly, in order to find the changes, and the solutions that will make it all possible.
(8) Be humble and help others
If you are fortunate to make it into a senior leadership position remember the power of humility and gratitude. Jesse Jackson put it best “Never look down on anybody unless you're helping them up.” Leaders have a responsibility to help others improve, for what is our work if it isn’t people.
Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don't miss the Real Business First Women programme:
Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit – designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.
Tim Taylor is the MD of Making Great Leaders, which works with managers of managers in SMEs and bluechip companies in the UK and internationally.