If you have a board that largely looks and thinks the same, with similar experience, it will have a narrow view on a world that is changing fast, regardless of how talented its members are (Alison Kay, EY).
Last year, Cranfield University’s annual Board Report showed a positive picture in terms of the number of
women on corporate boards. The percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards was 34.5% and the equivalent figure for FTSE 250 boards was 31.9%. The number of women in the Chair role had increased from five in 2019 to eight in 2020, whilst the number of women in the Senior Independent Director (SID) role stayed the same at 21. There was a big increase in the number of board committees between 2019 and 2020 (393 compared to 295), yet the percentage of women chairing those committees had dropped slightly from 31% to 29%.
The progress of women into senior leadership positions continues at a slow pace. In order to ensure better representation of women across all levels within the workplace and more inclusive working practices, it is crucial that women continue to be supported into these senior leadership positions. Research shows that there is a correlation between gender diversity at the board level and an increase in women in management positions across the organisation.
It got me thinking about what women need, to be at and stay at the top. Of course, the list is long, but currently, one thing stands out for me: nurture. In my experience of coaching senior and junior women at work, I find that women are holding themselves back more than men. In addition, more of my female clients are juggling multiple responsibilities than ever before, and women generally require higher levels of supportive infrastructure to sustain a successful career. Experience tells me that it’s a dangerous myth to suggest that women can simply have it all.
Challenging our assumptions
We know that women who rise in business are formidable. They are opportunists who are strong and can demonstrate grit and perseverance. These women will tell you that their journey wasn’t and still isn’t easy. The female leaders I have met and worked with are passionate problem solvers, people connectors and idea generators driven by a strong desire to create change for the better.
We often assume that such ‘strong’ women don’t need nurturing. It’s a story I hear female leaders telling themselves as well as others. In their world, strength comes from coping, and to need support can be associated with failure or weakness. These narratives can reinforce a mistaken belief that it’s not necessary to nurture strong women. However, I believe that what is paramount on the journey upwards is the building of creative resource infrastructures around yourself on the road to leadership, and this involves knowing how to access support. To deny yourself these infrastructures is, potentially, to hold yourself back or leave yourself open to exhaustion and burn-out.
However, in my experience, for many aspiring and established female leaders, creating the right resource infrastructure continues to be a significant issue. The reasons for this are varied, and naturally include barriers outside an individual’s control. However, what I often see is female clients struggling with their internal barriers as much as the external ones. These psychological barriers can dictate our approach to asking for and receiving help.
Challenging our thoughts and behaviours
When it comes to asking for and receiving support, I have worked with two distinct types of belief that get in the way of asking for help:
‘Avoidance’ beliefs – those who find it difficult to ask for help or to accept it when it is offered to them
‘Compliance’ beliefs – those who feel guilty, feel they ‘should’ and can’t say no to demands on their time
Coachees who hold these beliefs about themselves and others struggle on, believing that they ‘should’ or ‘must’ be able to cope, to have all the answers, to deliver every solution, or solve every problem. Whilst the demands on their time have increased with their spheres of responsibility, their attitude has remained fixed: I must demonstrate that I can do this. This can result in hyper-activity to find all the answers to ‘what is needed here/now?’, instead of a process of taking a step back to think ‘what do I need?’ or ‘what would be the best outcome for me?’ Common thought patterns might include:
I have to be perfect to succeed / Failure is not an option / I have to demonstrate I can do this / Everyone else does it so much better than me / I’m not good enough yet / I can’t do it without giving 150% all of the time / I haven’t earnt this yet / I can’t delegate this / It’s quicker and easier if I just do it myself
My experience has been backed up by research into leadership behaviours. In a recent leadership study by Harvard Business Review, female CEOs agreed that they don’t expect any help at home or at work.
Creating new norms
I wonder what the workplace of the future could look like, if we could nurture our female leaders more pro-actively, and show them how to be successful without having to be everything to everyone. What if we were to promote the notion that ‘strong’ leadership means knowing how and when to ask for help, and also when to give it. For me, that is what resilience is. Not knowing how to endure, but knowing how and when to step back and take care. Female leaders have a dual responsibility here – having the courage to be honest about how difficult it is to survive, so that aspiring leaders have authentic role models, and knowing how to ask for help themselves without feeling like a failure.
It is necessary for female leaders (and in fact all women in business) to adopt coping strategies, and they should be mostly healthy ones. Too many times I have heard a successful female say to an ambitious colleague
“this is how I’ve coped, but for god’s sake, don’t do what I do. I just do it to survive here.”
This sort of conversation reinforces the message that it’s impossible to remain authentic, find realistic and manageable ways of coping with pressure, and be successful. It also demonstrates to aspiring female leaders that it’s the norm for all boundaries to be blurred with respect to work demands, and this isn’t healthy. It sets future leaders up for a way of being that isn’t sustainable.
Coaching for change
Our learnt thought patterns and beliefs can be changed in the right setting, resulting in more positive patterns of behaviour that enable, rather than hold women back. It can be difficult to talk about what it is like to be a woman at the top even among peers, because there is a need for everyone to appear to be coping. No-one wants to stand out as the one who is struggling with the pressure.
It is possible to change deeply ingrained belief systems and behavioural patterns through safe coaching conversations.
Through the coaching process of self-discovery, coachees increase the opportunities for coming to a deeper understanding of their own psychological barriers. In addition, they gain the capacity to take steps to break out of their self-defeating patterns.
If you are a coach, here are some of my tips on how to nurture existing and aspiring female leaders more effectively in a workplace setting:
It’s not necessary to put in place processes, paperwork, development programmes or formal review procedures to coach. Coaching can take place at any time and without formality or infrastructure. The most important element of coaching, in my view, is to break the pattern of the coach doing all of the talking, which turns it into a mentoring or performance review session. The coachee should own the space, and through intelligent, non-judgemental questions from the coach, enjoy a process of self-discovery and learning. Active listening and remaining non-judgemental are crucial coaching skills.
1. Get your aspiring or existing female leaders pro-actively thinking about what they need and make this the norm – it creates safety in asking for help
2. Regularly take the time to ask what else they need – don’t make your own assumptions
3. Listen and take action, or offer support where possible
4. Start a conversation about their own beliefs about coping vs needing support
5. Help them uncover their fears regarding needing support
6. Ask them what’s holding them back at work/home. With work related responses, consider what it says about your leadership culture in a non-defensive manner
7. Help them explore and tackle misplaced perceptions around delegation
8. Encourage them to visualise and articulate what feeling well supported and resourced would look like
9. Challenge them to think about how support structures might be different and better, and offer your support in establishing relevant goals to achieve this.
You, the coach
1. Challenge yourself as a coach. What are you struggling with?
2. Never be a false role model. Be honest about your own psychological barriers to asking for help and what that has meant for you
3. Ask them how they see you and be receptive, not defensive to their answers. Take it away and think about it
4. Role model effective work/life boundaries – including not being ‘always on’. Don’t take a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. This is confusing and sends the signal that authentic behaviour is not safe or rewarded. It creates mistrust
5. Have conversations about or teach women self-care strategies early in their careers. They are essential
6. Create several safe spaces in your organisation for these conversations – don’t be the only person they can turn to
7. When you see others developing destructive coping mechanisms, offer support, rather than accepting that it’s ‘what’s necessary to survive’
8. Encourage self-honesty, but don’t use it against them later in a ‘personal development’ conversation. This destroys trust
9. Introduce them to positive self-development tools such as using an external coach or finding a good mentor.
I am an Accredited Executive Coach and senior trainee psychotherapist. Based on my corporate and clinical experience, I have designed a coaching programme to help women develop more healthy coping strategies and stronger resource infrastructures.
If you want to feel better resourced, more in control, happier, and better supported, contact me to discuss your goals and let me help you to change.
Together we will:
• Work through your psychological barriers to transform the way you think about and ask for help
• Explore your own needs, which you will learn to respect
• Identify and put in place infrastructures that will enable you to meet your full potential
• Create the balance you really want, but are holding back from creating
Contact me today at firstname.lastname@example.org
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