The evidence reveals a clear picture: the more women leaders an organization has, the healthier and more profitable it will be. For that to happen, the C-suite has to be proactive, not only clearing hurdles and aggressively opening doors but also encouraging high potential women to climb the career ladder.
Interviews with top women leaders from many walks of life yielded invaluable intelligence about how they reached their full professional potential. Their stories, while different from one other, illustrate common principles and themes about high-achieving women leaders.
For CEOs who are committed to bringing more women into top leadership, here are nine principles to encourage in high potentials.
Principle 1: Embrace And Encourage Special Gifts
Research shows time and again that a woman’s brain is wired for emotional intelligence. This wiring makes women especially good at diplomacy, empathy and compromise, and it helps them be creative problem solvers. Encourage women to give these prized leadership skills a prominent place in their professional toolkit because, more than anything else, this behavior is the ticket to the top.
Principle 2: Don’t Wait For Permission
People become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and taking purposeful action. To lead, women must step out of their comfort zones without waiting for permission. It can feel uncomfortable to “take” leadership. Encourage high performers to feel the fear, step up and lead anyway.
Principle 3: Synchronize Vision And Values To Drive Change
Everyone has core values that influence feelings and drive priorities. But those core values aren’t always clearly or even consciously established, so it’s important to invest the time and energy to get clarity and ensure values are intentional, not simply soaked up from the surroundings.
Research shows that one of the competencies for senior leadership is the ability to create a vision for change, and the roadmap to accomplishing that vision will be driven by an individual’s values system. The clearer leaders are about their values (and the more they lead with them) the better. That clarity will empower the women leaders in the organization to make good decisions rather than settling for choices that don’t quite feel right.
Principle 4: Speak Up
“We [as women] believe we should wait until we are absolutely sure that we are ready for something before we ask for it,” says Valerie Jarrett, long-time advisor to Barack Obama.
After a decade of hard work, a client pointed out to Jarrett that she was doing the work of her then-supervisor, explaining: “You need to be the boss. You need a promotion.” Jarrett initially dismissed the advice, but her friend kept nudging her, and finally, Jarrett took the plunge. She remembers the experience of talking to her supervisor like it was yesterday: “I was so nervous, but I told him all the reasons I deserved it, and he very quickly just said, ‘OK’.”
Many years later Jarrett quizzed her former boss, now a close friend, about why he didn’t voluntarily offer her the promotion. He’d been busy, he said, and hadn’t thought of it. Jarrett describes the female fallacy this way: “We all assume there’s a reason. We think, ‘I’m not deserving. If I were, he’d recognize my talent.’”
Don’t create a culture where employees — and especially women — feel they have to wait for recognition. Instead encourage them to speak up.
Principle 5: Leverage Meeting Time
Leveraging meetings can be key to being noticed and, ultimately, getting fast-tracked. In doing research for their book, Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power, authors Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt noted men tend to arrive early for meetings to get their choice of seats and to chat with colleagues. Participating in these informal advance conversations can help clarify the true purpose of a meeting, making it much easier to take an active part in the conversation. They are also prone to staying afterward to close off the discussion and talk about other top-of-mind issues. Men view these pre- and post-meeting moments as significant business-building opportunities and often use this time to test ideas and garner support.
In contrast, the authors revealed, women tend to arrive promptly for meetings, but not particularly early, so they miss the informal discussion that men find so important. Moreover, women are much less likely than men to linger after the meeting for more discussion. Instead, when the last agenda item is completed, women quickly depart for another meeting or return to their offices to address pressing matters.
The time before and after a meeting is critical for building alliances with attendees. In addition, these moments can be important to understanding what’s really happening in a firm.
Principle 6: Prepare To Speak Spontaneously
Prior to any important presentation, it’s critical to think through delicate matters and be judicious about when and how to share an issue. Communication is critical to perception, and encouraging public speaking training for high potential employees is worth the investment.
Principle 7: Be Politically Savvy
Office politics gets a bad rap, implying ruthlessness and manipulation. But John Eldred, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, says politics is simply how power gets worked out in an organization on a daily basis. Women should not fear “politics,” but embrace the force and use it to drive their vision.
Principle 8: Learn From Setbacks And Failure
Learning how to “fail forward” is key to learning to lead. Before Vera Wang became the famous fashion designer she is today, she failed to make the 1968 US Olympic Figure Skating Team. Following that failure, she focused on a different goal and took a job as a Vogue assistant. Within a year, she was promoted to senior fashion editor at age twenty-three. Fifteen years of amazing creative work followed, but Wang was ultimately passed over for Vogue’s editor-in-chief position. Again, she “failed forward” and became the quintessential fashion designer she is today.
It’s ironic, but the uncertainty and grief that result from setbacks and deep failure can often inspire someone’s best work. Moreover, failure teaches everyone to be humble and grounded, providing lessons to share with the team. Honesty and candor will be one of the most respected virtues any successful leader can possess — male or female.
Rule 9: Recruit Sponsors
A recent McKinsey study titled, “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the US Economy,” looked at factors women cite as barriers to getting ahead. “Not having a sponsor to create opportunities” was one of those major obstacles.
Equipped with their senior status and huge network of influential contacts, sponsors carry a “professional flag” out into the world to help position and lobby for others. High potential individuals should have both men and women sponsors, but high-powered women can be especially fierce advocates for other women because they know how hard the climb is.
CEOs, your job is to make these nine principles part of the DNA of the company. It won’t happen overnight, doing so will clear the runway for the future leaders to rise up and make their highest contribution.
Jill Griffin is a NYSE independent public board director, internationally-published Harvard “Working Knowledge” author and noted thought leader on leadership, customer loyalty and board governance. Her fifth book, available now, is Women Make Great Leaders: Real-World Lessons to Accelerate Your Climb