As a woman-owned firm, we are often invited to work with women, provide women’s workshops, and speak to women’s networks and conferences. As enjoyable as these events are, we have grown uncomfortable with a subtle undercurrent that seems to pervade many of these gatherings – the idea that women have similar deficits that hold them back from advancing in senior ranks. We think it’s dangerous to see women as a group needing to be “fixed.”

At the same time, we continue to hear from clients, and from the broader marketplace, a deep-rooted interest in finding the levers to break through the barriers in reaching parity with men in leadership roles. (For a perspective on the history of women in leadership roles – what’s changed and what hasn’t – see this special report.)  This remains an important area to address – for companies and for their leaders, male and female alike.

What we’ve learned from the data

We have had the opportunity to look at the data and coach many women leaders based on the Bates ExPI assessment, and it has helped us to understand and appreciate the only effective way to help them advance is to treat women as individuals. We think that it’s time for an overhaul of women’s leadership development. If the one-size-fits-all thinking doesn’t change, the interventions won’t change, and organizations will continue to be disappointed in the results.

The differences among women need to be understood at the individual level in order to guide them forward on a path of development. The Bates ExPI gives us a rich look at the strengths and gaps of women as perceived by various stakeholder groups, but we also must understand internal and external factors that have shaped the individual, as well as the context of their roles and the business imperative. This has important implications for how we help women advance.

Significant resources are being invested in sending women through leadership programs. The data suggests that there may be better ways to do it and get a real return on investment. Shepherding women through group training without the benefit of individual assessment promotes the idea that women as a group need to be fixed. It may be “easy” to provide women with classroom skill building, but they may be sitting in the wrong courses. Without also having the benefit of individual assessment, we would argue that many women’s leadership programs could be counterproductive to the aims of the organization.

Changing how we assess and development women leaders

So, what are our recommendations on helping women advance? What may be more important than most steps we can take is twofold:

  1. That those looking at the leadership pipeline become aware of how legacy mindsets and culture can exclude individuals and styles, and
  2. That they adopt an attitude of openness, curiosity, and pragmatism in their evaluations of women leaders.

It is also important to note that while women care about being respected, rewarded, and included, they don’t need everyone to “love them” so much as they need a critical mass of support and encouragement, even if it comes from just two or three people. In any organization where women are underrepresented, we can assume it’s possible that they may be feeling unacknowledged. Offering assessment and development to high-potential leaders is a form of acknowledgement and respect. Assessment provides women with affirmation that they are acknowledged and understood, as well as a belief that they have standing as a person, in all of their differences.

Suzanne Bates explores this topic – and the implications of our research on women leaders – in more depth in her book All the Leader You Can Be. We will be sharing more of these insights from the book – some surprising and counterintuitive – in upcoming posts.

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