I’m often invited to comment on how to help more women get to the C-Suite and become influential in their organizations. It’s a great question. The number of women on boards of directors is increasing; however, the number in C-level roles remains stubbornly low. It doesn’t make sense. More than half of professionals entering the workforce every year are female, they represent more than half of MBAs, and yet in spite of all the advice to lean in, women aren’t “trickling up.”

In my view, one of the impediments is that we lull ourselves into thinking we’ve been doing something that makes a difference. Well-meaning women’s networking programs, and diversity and inclusion programs have appeased us into thinking we’ll bring people together and they’ll figure out how to break through. I’ve seen too often how these meetings can become forums for women to reinforce the notion they lack confidence, or, blame the company for policies and attitudes that keep women from advancing. This kind of talk does nothing to empower women or the organization to take positive steps.  Networking among women and diverse candidates is a good thing but it doesn’t break the glass ceiling.

Another impediment is the unstated but clear premise of most women’s development programs – that is, that women have deficits we need to address before we can promote them. That is utterly ridiculous. At Bates, our research frankly indicates women have more of the contemporary qualities of leadership organizations want and need. Yet this pervasive, damaging attitude that women are flawed, has become an accepted premise in conversations on talent development and promotion. It serves to reinforce conscious and unconscious bias. If you think women need to be fixed, and you don’t know how to fix them, the “problem” never goes away.

Our firm has conducted extensive research on what behaviors and factors inform executive presence, which we define as the leader’s ability to engage, align, inspire and move people to act.  What we’ve found at a high level is a breakthrough concept – women actually rate higher in more qualities of executive presence than men do, and this is feedback from their own organizations. This is so important a fact that it could utterly change the way organizations evaluate, promote and support the advancement of women.

What We’ve Learned About Women and Influence

The Bates Executive Presence model, validated by an independent panel of psychologists and piloted in 20 companies before its release in 2014, defines executive presence as “the qualities of leaders that engage, inspire, align and move people to act.” The model is operationalized in our Bates Executive Presence Index (ExPI), a multi-rater assessment that includes data for over 1,300 leaders, and is now deployed in at least 20 countries and in an array of industries.  

We analyzed the data to see whether or not a perceived lack of executive presence was holding women back. In fact, our analysis suggests quite the opposite. Among the key findings were:

  • Men and women rate the same on a majority of the qualities of executive presence
  • Where there are differences, women typically rate higher
  • There are more differences among women, than between men and women leaders
  • Managers tend to rate women higher than men in most categories
  • Peers also tend to rate women higher than men, when there is a difference

These and other data would suggest that what is holding women back is not a lack of executive presence, especially as defined by a robust, science-based model. Women leaders compare favorably and often are better rated by peers, direct reports and managers.   

The failure point, therefore, cannot be that women do not have executive presence. Each leader’s brand of presence is different, for sure.  Women leaders are not broken, yet that can be how some may interpret the message of “one size fits all” development programs. At the same time, all leaders hit inflection points in their careers, and need to adapt and grow.  The question is how to support them.  

What Women – and Organizations – Can Do to Increase Influence

With that in mind, here are three recommendations for organizations looking to help women leaders develop executive presence, and expand their influence.

  1. Give women leaders constructive feedback based in scientifically validated assessment

A scientifically valid assessment of strengths and gap areas is a necessary – and empowering – tool to provide credible advice to an individual leader, to help her understand how she is perceived in the organization and how that matches with her intent. This helps to eliminate “blind spots” in how we lead others and engage with peers. That’s not enough, though. We next need to ensure that any feedback or developmental recommendations will be specific, relevant, and aligned with that leader’s business imperatives and situation.

If we want to really help women move the needle on executive presence, we need ensure that the assessment looks at an individual leader’s strengths and gaps in the context of her particular business setting—rather than basing developmental efforts on preconceived notions or sweeping generalizations.

  1. Stop offering one-size-fits all development, and start tailoring it to each woman’s gaps and needs

Our research found there are more differences among women than between men and women. Every leader has a different set of strengths and gaps, when measured against 15 qualities of presence. When we provide accurate data on specific behaviors, leaders are motivated to change and know what to do.  What isn’t helpful is vague feedback to work on executive presence without defining what that is.  Coaching and mentoring reinforces development, by helping leaders understand what strengths they can leverage and what gaps are important to their effectiveness as leaders in their current roles.

  1. Set up a process that enables women to have powerful, specific conversations with managers

What happens when a woman feels that she is receiving feedback that is unhelpful or even unfair—she begins to suspect that the foundation of it is gender bias. This disengages her from the process.  We show organizations how to change the language and change the conversation that’s happening between leaders, their managers and mentors. When we change the language and have specific definitions of important qualities of leadership, the conversation that ensues can actually serve to disconfirm negative perceptions of the manager. In other words, it doesn’t just help the leader, it helps the manager see the leader differently and be more helpful in their development work.  

Having such conversations keeps the focus on desirable behaviors and on exploring avenues of development and improvement in a constructive dialogue. Over time, it can change the nature of the relationship between a leader and her boss or her peer.

If you want to learn more about your own strengths and challenges, and to leverage those to not only stand out, but influence others and sustain goal-directed action in an organization, explore our Executive Presence for Women Leadersprogram. 

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