How companies can help women be confident and lead the change they need

confident working women

Companies today have many challenges, and mission critical is their ability to manage change. 

As Charles Darwin reportedly said – “it is neither the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one that is most adaptable to change”.  But how can companies keep up with change when its rate and complexity is constantly increasing?

The answer is not to keep up, but to be one step ahead.   Companies that are ahead of the change are not only able to be more strategic, but to ‘create’ their future, just as Shell is doing with its new vision for a zero carbon world by 2070.  When companies get left behind, they become reactive, increasing workload and stress for their people, and eroding their motivation and confidence.

To lead the change, companies need to think differently, and harvest the untapped pearls within.  One of these metaphorical pearls is women, but relatively few reach a position high enough to make a real difference.  According to Grant Thornton’s annual ‘Women in Business’ survey, only 19 per cent of senior business roles in the UK are held by women in 2017, down from 21 per cent in 2016.

This is not only unequal, but also hugely limiting to companies, since both masculine and feminine leadership traits are needed for them to maximise performance.  Furthermore, a bias towards a masculine leadership style at the top of organisations imprints itself on the organisation as a whole, with a big impact on women’s confidence, motivation and willingness to speak out.  When a company’s leaders access both masculine and feminine styles, according to audience and context, not only is performance optimised, but a new organisational awareness, and culture ensues.

Encouraging women not only to be the subject of the change, but also to lead it, building a culture that encourages gender optimal leadership throughout, will pay dividends.  The change needs to be led from the top, with more women to set the tone and the example, but also driven from the bottom, through confident female change leaders that are so influential they take men with them.  This is transformational change, where the top of the organisation sets the tone and the example, but it is the employees who are empowered to be the real change leaders.

What’s really interesting here is that this kind of change, assuming that the vision is attractive and inspiring for all employees, creates long-lasting engagement.  Given that declining engagement levels is another key challenge on the corporate agenda, this kind of approach could be very attractive.

The vision is a gender-optimal workplace, and the end result is a culture and engagement levels that both boost company performance.  According to a report by management consultants McKinsey, the most gender diverse quarter of companies between 2011 and 2015 were twenty per cent more likely than the least diverse to have above average financial performance.  When we add strong engagement levels into the mix, the positive effect multiplies.

Culture is one of the key drivers of company performance, and one of the main barriers to achieving gender balance within our companies.  Of course there are structural issues as well, such as flexible working arrangements, or a lack of them, but culture provides the behavioural platform for all issues to be resolved.  And when we get our female talent involved in this culture change, and set them up for success, they have a purpose they can really get after, and their natural leadership skills, and their confidence, will emerge.

So how do companies help women be confident and lead the change the organisation needs?

Firstly, they need to set an exciting an aspirational vision for a diverse and gender optimal organisation and clearly show their commitment to it.

Secondly, they need to establish a culture which is inclusive of women (and all minority groups), welcoming all styles of leadership, and crossing gender, personality and even cultural borders, so that women can be themselves and speak out authentically, rather than being forced to adopt a masculine style to fit in.

And finally, they need to train a select group of female (and male) employees as change leaders, giving them the skills, and the confidence, to influence upwards and have the critical conversations that will drive the change through.

To speak out and lead requires confidence, and authenticity and a style we feel comfortable with is key.  Louann Brizendine, in her book The Female Brain, suggests that women’s brains are wired to prioritise connections and relationships.  How does this work in a male-dominated environment where only the ideas of those that speak loudest get heard?  When the environment is more gender-balanced, and feminine leadership styles accommodated, everyone has a voice, and the company benefits.

Why not let women lead the change that we as ambitious companies require?

About the author

Karen J. Hewitt is CEO of Leaderlike Ltd and author of Employee Confidence – the new rules of Engagement

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