Recent analysis from Cranfield University showed a sharp drop in the number of women holding the most senior jobs at FTSE 250 firms, and static numbers at FTSE 100 companies. There are only six female CEOs in the FTSE 250 and the number of all-male boards has risen to 10. Disappointing figures. 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.
It got me thinking about what women need, to be at and stay at the top. Of course, the list is endless, but currently, one thing stands out for me: nurture. In my experience as an Executive Coach, women are holding themselves back more than men. In addition, more women are juggling multiple responsibilities than ever before and women require high levels of supportive infrastructure to sustain a successful career. 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 and it’s a story female leaders often tell themselves as well as others. In their world, strength comes from coping, and to need support is often associated with failure, and failure is not an option. These narratives reinforce our mistaken belief that it’s not necessary to nurture strong women. However, the key to success is to build creative resource infrastructures around yourself on the road to leadership, and this involves knowing how to access support. To deny yourself these infrastructures is to hold yourself back.
However, 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, in my experience as a coach, it’s the internal barriers that create the biggest obstacles to progress. These psychological barriers dictate our approach to asking for and receiving help.
Challenging your thoughts and behaviours
When it comes to asking for and receiving support, I have worked with two distinct types of individual who get in their own way:
The Avoidant – those who find it difficult to ask for help or to accept it when it is offered
The Compliant – those who feel guilty and can’t say no to demands on their time
Both types 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. Common thought patterns include:
I have to be perfect to succeed / Failure is not an option / 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. 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 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
These are learnt thought patterns that 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 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.
Here are 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 accept that a new reality is possible, and offer your support in establishing relevant goals to achieve it
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 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