I was asked the other day what I would do to get more women on the board of today’s organisations.  From the Women on Boards Annual Progress Report, as of March 2013, the FTSE 100 figures show:

  • Women now account for 17.3% of all directorships, up from 10.5% in 2010.
  • Women account for 34% of all appointments (45 out of 134 appointments)
  • There are currently 94 boards with female representations
  • There are now 192 women directors on FTSE100 boards out of a total of 1,110.

It’s certainly a subject close to my heart!  In my view, it’s not about giving more women the role just to make the numbers up.  The debated quotas are, in my view, useful to keep the issue in focus, rather than a directive.  Personally, I prefer to be given a role knowing that I’d earned it through merit and results.  Although I also realise that some will thrive once they’ve been given the opportunity to show what they are capable of.

To me, it’s about ensuring that the organisation’s strategy is to identify, encourage and develop the right leadership skills in women, and men, so that there is an understanding and appreciation of the benefits of a breadth of skills throughout the organisation.  It’s about equality and best practice of diversity.

As I was moving to more senior roles in a male dominated environment, I had a number of female managers tell me that they were watching me to see how I could be successful and keep my morals!  How sad is that?

Unfortunately, over the years observations are that some women believe that they have no choice but to become self-centred, ruthless and domineering in order to succeed.  Others don’t have the confidence to feel comfortable about their unique set of skills, manage upwards and work assertively (not aggressively) towards more senior roles.   Neither are role models for our future managers.

It certainly took me a while, but I did learn to explain how my management style (although different) had its benefits too.  I would often be accused of being too protective of my team, too soft etc – but what I eventually discovered was that these were more than misunderstandings of my approach, they were deep seated beliefs that you couldn’t effectively lead a team without being a certain type of person.  And this was despite the proven results of the teams.

For us to effectively develop the leaders of tomorrow, we need to get everyone in the organisation (all the way from the top) to understand how a combination of personality types and traits can provide better customer service, better internal employee engagement, better decision making and better problem solving.

Senior executives have certainly had to earn their stripes, but many have always led in a certain manner and have not considered that there may have been casualties as well as successes along the way.  In order for the boardroom to embrace a new approach, they have to believe in the benefits.  And unless they do, the training and coaching of their future leaders won’t be given the right focus or budget.

For example, research shows that if you only have task focussed people in a boardroom, you’re going to miss fundamental issues about the effects your decisions will make on customers and employees.  If you only have big picture, future focussed people, you’re more likely to miss some of the details which could cause errors, delays, failed projects/initiatives and ultimately frustrated customers and employees.

There are certainly some areas which are more specific to women (although not restricted), to help encourage leadership careers, to return to work after having a family etc.  And I appreciate the government is working on flexible working hours, equal pay, tax breaks and careers advise in schools.  But I also believe that leadership development is relevant for all and should encourage a more integrated and appreciative environment.

Short term:  I think there are some quick wins in the boardroom with a focus on the development of self-awareness and the issues (both on the employees and the organisation’s bottom line) resulting from blindspots towards characteristics that they do not share or do not understand.

Medium term:  a full review of the organisation’s strategy towards leadership development and employee self awareness is ideal.  What is the culture you want to encourage, the skills you want leaders to demonstrate?   What coaching and training can be provided to develop confident leaders?  What can an organisation do to encourage more women to become leaders or come back into the workplace?  How can leaders learn to manage up better?

Long term: Regularly identify potential and enthusiastic future leaders (both men and women) from your current employee base, and start them on a fast-track to learning the leadership skills and the confidence to bring exceptional teams together who can achieve results.  Additionally, as it’s often reported that women can lose their confidence during their time away from the workplace, you could introduce a specific confidence programme within your organisation.

With a recent survey highlighting that 40-50% of new hires fail to achieve the desired results, and another showing that 79% of UK HR Directors are concerned about losing their top performers in 2013, supporting our leaders is becoming more and more important.  And with continued economic uncertainty, we’re aware that having leaders who can manage costs and deliver initiatives on a limited budget is essential.

To get teams who can collaborate, communicate and achieve results, you need leaders who can motivate and engage them.  Organisations that understand and encourage diversity of skills, and support their leaders to respect and utilise these, must surely benefit in the short, medium and long term.

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