The argument is won. Sort of. Most boards – whether enthusiastically or reluctantly – admit they need more women at the top of their organisation. Some because they know it just makes business sense, others because they look increasingly odd and out of touch if they are all ‘pale, male and stale’.
But doing it is harder and men are at their wits’ end as to how they get more women into senior roles quickly. It’s not for lack of trying; there are endless initiatives internally and externally.
The answer is complex and a mix of history and culture as to how talent has been found and promoted; the culture at the top (I know plenty of women, myself included, for whom the ‘corporate’ life simply doesn’t appeal enough) – but also how women put themselves on the radar to be ready for and spotted as the right person for the next role.
Here I want to look at this last part – what can women themselves do? I have spent the last two years listening to and working with more than 1,000 senior women in the UK and the UAE (the issues and messages are surprisingly similar).
This hasn’t been academic research but here I share the themes that emerged and what our business is doing to play our own part in helping more women be recognised and promoted (to read the full report and why and how we started this project, read our paperWomen Leaders: stepping out of the shadows)
1. Women need a clear personal brand
It was a head-hunter who first said to me that personal branding is really important. At first I thought it was rather fluffy, but the more I have worked with senior women the more I realise how essential this first step is.
I have just given a talk to 50 fantastic female directors in the hospitality and leisure industry. I checked out all the women’s LinkedIn profiles beforehand and was struck by how few stood out or were memorable. Their profiles were workmanlike to put it kindly! Most have just dumped a CV into their profile, not thought about how they want to be seen, what keywords a headhunter or conference organiser might be searching for or how they can stand out for particular expertise.
In my talk I pointed out that, from their profiles, the women “manage brands, multi-sites; some have lots of drive, humour and demonstrate leadership abilities”. But does any of this make them a ‘buy’. Who makes brands sing so that they become the latest trend-setter and grow sales by 20% a year? Or who is particularly good at operational efficiency and the ‘go to’ person for private equity firms because they deliver the lowest operating costs in the industry?
Only two people had profiles that made them stand out and one of those was our host’s, Ann Elliott.
I have written dozens of LinkedIn profiles over the last year and both men and women can feel uncomfortable when they see their achievements packaged properly. One woman said, “It is me, but can I have 24 hours to get used to me?!”
Getting your branding right is not about being brash or self-promotional. It is just ensuring you are clear in your own head about your expertise and then make sure others can see what you have to offer (lots of tips in this personal branding blog andhow to write directors’ LinkedIn profiles to help you do that)
2. Impact in meetings and presentations
One of the things I have challenged women on, is how much time and priority they give to themselves – as opposed to the job? I worked with two really impressive female leaders who could not understand how a former female peer had soared ahead of them in terms of board appointments, being an international speaker, being the ‘go to’ person for governments to consult with.
When we unpicked the last ten years for all of them, one of the things that struck me was that too often they cancelled key events or turned up late or unprepared because of crises in the office.
Key to making an impact is preparation. Knowing your audience, making it relevant, being clear about what you want to happen at the end and really planning how to make an impact. This is not about putting yourself before your company or work. Men see this as an integral part of success for themselves and their business. Too many women think they are being selfish if they take time to do this.
3. Become a thought leader
Being a ‘thought leader’ can sound rather grand and just for other people, for academics and gurus.
Yet it would be odd if, having spent the last 20 or 30 years being very good in your industry or a particular area of business, you didn’t have ideas about how things can be done better? You will have seen how trends develop, spot issues arising, accurately predict where a sector is going, have new ideas about solving a problem.
Once, if you wanted to be a thought leader you had to find a publisher and write a book or publish academic research. Now you can write a blog and post it on LinkedIn in a matter of hours, get back dozens of comments within the hour and position your expertise to hundreds if not thousands of your contacts and others. The last blog I posted on LinkedIn had 3,000+ views, 22 really great comments and 100+ likes. It is a very easy way to network and remind people of your expertise.
If you want to see how all of this can work for a leader, read Pat Chapman-Pincher’s blog on how she has developed her brand and thought leadership to influence business leaders.
Never has there been so much willingness to see women at the top. Now is our time! Corporates and others are doing a great deal to look at how they operate and attract more women. But women also have to play their part.
As a female leader, are you giving time and effort to your career – or are you hoping your good work will be noticed and you will be ‘asked to dance’!
What do men think - do women need to position themselves more for the top jobs?
I would really welcome wider views on this topic – does this resonate, do you think there are bigger issues, do women need to do more to help themselves?
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