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women need to practice leading before we can expect them to lead

July 18, 2014

“Do the thing and you will have the power.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Here is what I am thinking.

Women need to practise leading before we can expect them to lead. Men should practise leading before they can expect to lead.

Let me tell you why.

Research has shown that when considering a position description for a new role, women generally feel that before they can consider applying they need to know they have a demonstrated capability to meet almost 100% of the competencies of the role. Men on the other hand will apply if they believe they can meet around 60% of the competencies. From my (male) perspective that sounds about right but it goes further. If I looked at a position description and I knew I could already do 100% of the role I wouldn’t consider applying! I would see no opportunity for development and growth within the role.

Conversations I have had recently with people in senior roles support the research findings and the implications of that orientation are at the heart of why I think women are underrepresented in senior/ leadership roles.

Let’s start by accepting the hypothesis that women tend not to put themselves forward for roles that require capabilities that they feel they have not fully developed.  It would follow then that they would not get the opportunity to practise and develop those capabilities … which would mean others (usually men) would advance ahead of them, reinforcing an internal perception that they are not yet ready to take on those sort of roles. It is easy then to see how the cycle would continue. A self-deprecating spiral that sees organisations deprived of a significant amount of leadership talent.

To me the hypothesis holds and the consequences that follow are visible.

Many women, it seems, need the opportunity to practice before they feel they are capable of doing it for real. To address the imbalances in gender in senior leadership roles that means we need to provide opportunities for women to practise before we can expect them to step up and lead.

If those opportunities are not available we are setting them up for failure, asking them to ‘lean-in’ to something they fear they are unable to do. Throwing anybody in at the deep end of a pool and expecting them to swim when they have no chance to practise swimming is setting them up to drown – especially if they doubt their ability. Some do end up swimming but many end up fearing the water.

Many men, it seems, take a different approach. They walk around watching others in the pool while telling you how fast they will be able to swim if they get the new role. They dive in and thrash about and (just) manage to keep their head above water. Their technique is terrible and they spend a lot of time and organisational energy while they are learning how to do it better all the while setting a bad example for those who might be walking around the pool ready to follow them.

I believe neither approach delivers the leadership we need.

Thinking about the challenge of leadership in this way makes a solution clear:  Provide opportunities for meaningful practice for everyone before they dive in to a leadership role.

That is easier said than done in the leadership space so here are the four key attributes of leadership programs that you need to look for:

1. Ensure the target capability is actually being practised – I have to actually do it. As Emerson said, do the thing and you will have the power. Reading about how to do it isn’t the same. Reading about how other have done it isn’t the same. Discussing how others have succeeded or failed – not good enough. Watching a replay of the olympic final is very different to swimming it (or for that matter earning the right to swim it).
2. Ego involvement – I need to have skin in the game. If my ego is not involved then I am not going to learn and I am not going to engage. Delivering a presentation to a mirror is not the same as delivering it to the board. Swimming laps against the clock in your pool at home is not the same as racing others in front of a screaming crowd. Your leadership program needs to provide an opportunity to do it with and in front of others so that ego is involved.
3. Failure is mandatory – the program must create opportunities that provide safe ways for me to fail. If you do not fail you cannot learn and you will not grow as a leader. Any program that guarantees success will fail.
4. Real consequences but no damage – I must feel the pain. This is the part most development programs miss. If a two-hour session to discuss case studies is scheduled as part of a development program the main consequences are associated with my showing up or not to discuss them. If my attendance at the pool is all that is needed that will not drive me to develop the skills I need to swim well. But it has to be safe for me and for others in my organisation.

The best programs will create opportunities that do all four simultaneously. Allows participants to practise the target capability, in a way that they care about and that engages and involves their ego, with consequences attached to their failures that are real but result in no real world damage.

If you can do that then you can expect leaders of all genders will lead and lead well.


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