Advancing Leadership Development for Women – What Works?

Dateline Orlando – Academy of Management

By: Lyn Turknett

I’m still “reporting” from the Academy of Management conference in Orlando – and thoroughly enjoying the experience. It’s a monster conference, and selecting the session you want to attend from the fifty or more going on at any one time is excruciating.

I hit the jackpot Saturday when I decided to attend Advancing Leadership Development for Women. The format was fast-moving and provocative – there were six ten-minute presentations followed by discussion. Here are some highlights.

We heard first from Professor Susan Vinnicombe, director of the International Centre for Women Leaders at Cranfield School of Management in the UK. She contrasted two custom programs the Centre has designed – one for British Telecom in 1986 (it ran for 13 years) and another designed in 2008 for Ernst & Young.

The BT program was created when the British government put pressure on BT to lead the way in gender diversity. They decided to “do something” for their female leaders, and created a two week program in a spa-like setting focused on self-awareness, corporate politics, work-life balance, and career development. It was strictly for the women involved – there was no feedback to the company.

Contrast that with the E&Y program, which was driven not by external forces but by a perceived business need to increase the number of women partners. The business was heavily involved, and it began with a busy, high pressure two and a half day program. Coaching played a prominent role – 70% of the time was spent in coaching groups. Key issues uncovered were fed back to E&Y.

Vinnicombe and her colleague Deirdre Anderson consider three principles key to the success of the women’s development program. First, embed the program in the organization, and engage men as strategic partners. Second, establish a safe place for learning, and third, focus on leadership self-efficacy, which we know from research is lower in women.

Alison Konrad came next, and she described a pretty amazing women’s leadership program that she does for undergraduates. The course includes males, and the quotes on work-life balance that she shared from the end of the term reflection papers highlight the cultural issues women face. One young woman talks about plans to take two years off and then pick up her career; the young man vows to always be present on the weekends and to make every baseball game.

Gelaye Debebe, the session chair, gave a great brief definition of leadership – the ability to influence through inspiration. She and the next speaker, Stacy Blake-Beard, talked about multiple identities and the need to recognize and think consciously about those identities. Dr. Blake-Beard recommended the Social Identity Profile as a great exercise for women.

I learned next from Diana Bilimoria that the academic gender pyramid is pretty similar to the Catalyst corporate pyramid. Multi-level, systemic interventions are key to making the numbers really move, and those internventions are moving the numbers in science and engineering settings, and are reported in Bilimoria and Liang’s new book.

The final speaker before discussion was Cynthia Emrich, who just joined Catalyst but who had been with Duke Corporate Education for years. She began by referencing a recent Catalyst study indicating that women’s career progress is hampered but the fact that they don’t get the “hot jobs” – jobs that are critical given that we know that 70% of development occurs on the job. She then gave a fascinating account of the Novartis Executive Female Leadership Program, a program initiated by the CEO because he felt that more female execs in the top team was a strategic imperative. The program has had a huge impact; 80% of the first cohort has been promoted or had a significant lateral move, and the culture of the organization has changed, moving toward constructive on the Organization Culture Inventory and away from defensive-assertive.

The program was designed around Leading Myself, Leading my Team, and Leading the Business components, and included extensive coaching, mission-critical strategic business project teams, and a focus on what they called “The Journey to Authenticity.” Fifty percent of the programs are led or co-led by the CEO and executive committee. In the first cohort several women were mortified to be in the program. They had spent most of their career avoiding being identified by their gender, and now they were in a women only program.

Cynthia described an early exercise in which each participant was asked to answer “What is standing in the way of your being your best, true authentic self?” Women wrote the answers on a slip of paper and put them in a bag at the front. As answers were read, tears were shed, and a lot of the defensiveness about being in the program disappeared. The answers centered around three themes – I’m afraid I’m not good enough, I’m afraid I’m failing my family, and I’m afraid I will never be loved.

The participants suddenly shed their resistance to a female only program, and the audience, mostly women, understood.

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