Enhancing the value of all leaders

Don’t just focus on a single category

Last updated on March 17th, 2020 at 01:33 pm

I am frequently asked about the pace and success of getting more women into leadership roles. This is a perennial topic of discussion, debate and sometimes disagreement. 

Not that some people don’t want to promote women. Who would admit that? The argument is that when we focus specifically on one category of worker by gender, profession, race or other characteristic, we miss a larger opportunity to develop and promote others outside the current lens.

The focus on women is by now a long-running effort. Yet results are uneven, and currently disappointing, not just in the United States, but globally. A 2018 Catalyst study shows that Eastern Europe leads the world in gender-diverse leadership. Grant Thornton’s 2018 rankings agree, showing 87% of European businesses having at least one woman in senior management and 36% of businesses’ senior roles being held by women.

That said, women held just 24% of senior roles across the world in 2018, down from 25% in 2017. The share of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 dropped 25% between 2017 and 2018. 

What’s going on?

Lots of things and that’s why numbers like these create heartburn and discouragement both for women and the companies that support them. Using large company statistics to paint the picture of women in leadership skews the reality on the ground.

Take, for example, the number of women-owned businesses. Statistics from the American Express OPEN’s “The State of Women-Owned Businesses 2017” show that more than 11.6 million firms are owned by women, employing nearly 9 million people and generating $1.7 trillion in sales. Additionally, women-owned firms account for 39% of all privately held firms and contribute 8% of employment and 4.2% of revenues. Women of color own 5.4 million firms that employ 2.1 million people and generate $361 billion in revenues.   

That’s not nothin’!

The point here is that women are succeeding. They are growing. Men are, too. Minorities are, too. The disadvantaged and disabled are, too. There are more jobs than workers today, creating heartburn throughout the business community.

Rather than singling out one category of talent and telling a tale of woe or success, let’s dedicate our resources and energy to increasing the asset value of all our leaders. What does this mean? Helping emerging leaders look beyond the perks of the title to the breadth and depth of decision-making that goes with the role. Helping existing leaders understand their responsibility in continually developing others through active teaching, mentoring, modeling and broadening their capabilities. Recognizing that every organization, association, community and school system has an existing power structure that is necessary, sometimes arcane, and often dysfunctional. That’s what change brings.

The human challenge of growth and change is well-documented through the ages. The antidote to chaos is patient and intentional learning. Including individuals who have not typically been part of leadership and decision-making roles creates tension. If you’ve ever handed car keys to a teenage driver, you know the feeling. Learning to choose a response when faced with unfamiliar challenges rather than reacting as you are wired to react requires discipline, experimentation and, yes, sometimes acute discomfort. It is how we mature.

Learning the business of your organization through study and experience is a great point of focus. Broadening your view to place your organization in a bigger industry-wide picture and learning about the forces that encourage or hamper growth is critical. Identifying individuals with specific skills and getting them in places of greatest influence and impact is both art and science. All take enormous energy. All require a preoccupation that places self in proper context.

The world is increasingly complex — and tough. Our leaders need to be smart, thoughtful, courageous and resilient. They need to be open to divergent points of view in order to develop a broad understanding of commerce and the players who participate. They need to recognize their power to contribute to organizational growth and success as well as their responsibility to join their talents with others. 

We need to have women and men who are willing to lead, who aspire to achieve more, and who are not afraid to step into challenging positions.

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Susan Marshall is an author, speaker, and Founder of Backbone Institute, LLC, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future one person or team at a time. Her work over nearly 30 years with leaders in public and private sector industry, non-profit agencies, and public education is dedicated to building strong leaders who in turn create successful organizations, transform school systems, and develop leaders at all levels.

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