By Katherine Thomas
‘What do I have to do to get to the top?’
This is a question I have heard over and over again through the course of my work with talented, ambitious people who are making their way up the career ladder.
As a result, over the last two years I decided to research the unique requirements of top leadership roles. I wanted to know, not only whether there might be some common answers, regardless of role type or sector, but also whether the answers given by women would differ in any way from those given by men. My hope was that their experiences could offer insights to the many brilliant people I have met who want to continue moving their careers forward.
What I discovered that the answers top women gave me about their experiences of holding their positions were no different from what men shared with me. The unique requirements of top jobs are the same whether you are a male or a female leader. But at the same time there are some subtle differences in mindset and self-image that tend to lead to women’s approach to seeking promotion being different – and sometimes less successful.
To succeed, there are three practices you need to integrate in your daily routine. Regardless of gender, these alone will start to get you noticed for the promotion to which you aspire. It is in their practice however that genders differ.
To succeed you must scan your environment from the broadest perspective and bring the outside in. You need to have networks that span far beyond the obvious to unearth value others seldom see. In practice, this means having curiosity to search, willingness to hear, skill to combine and courage to rise above narrow-minded considerations so as to challenge received wisdom. Women are no different from men in the way that they build this perspective.
The ramp up in complexity, breadth, time pressure and noise that comes with making leadership decisions is always underestimated. You need filters to simplify whilst being mindful not to be derailed by being overly simplistic. You need some plans that stay firm, but others you quickly and willingly let go when the environment demands. Again, I found that women approached this requirement in the same way as men.
The lens leaders operate under is microscopic. Everything you say and do is watched and analyzed. Even your thoughts are extrapolated from your words and deeds. You must appeal to multiple constituencies by being flexible enough to adapt your message (differentiation) without ever compromising on what you hold to be true (consistency).
Unlike the other two, it is this attribute that is the major differentiator for women.
The first thing to be aware of is that studies on gender differences in the workplace point to clear findings that women are less likely than men to see themselves as ready for the next career step. I have seen this over and over again as a Human Resources Director. Even those who have overcome such reticence, are more likely to rely solely on outstanding performance and output as a ticket for promotion. This is not enough.
Yet, despite this diffidence, women often find themselves at an advantage in the career progression stakes. Research shows that they possess particular capability for cultivating self-awareness and environmental awareness in their daily lives.
This capability is key to unlocking your impact and your career. Being able to monitor and adjust your behaviour because you understand the context within which you work and the needs and concerns of the people around you (whether inside your organisation or your external networks) is the very foundation of steadfast impact.
Taking this a step further, perhaps the most important insight I got from my research is one that absolutely plays to women’s empathetic strength. Getting spotted for promotion relies on making those around you stronger and more capable. This is all about positive use of influence and power – and couldn’t be more different from the negative displays of power (hubris, self-aggrandisement etc.) that we so often have to tolerate in the workplace.
This is why I see reframing our mindset as so important to unlocking our careers. The only gender differences I identified are not attributes that hold women back but rather, when recognized and used, are exactly those behaviours that will help you reach the point where no-one ever questions why you should be a top leader, but rather questions why you are not one already.
About the author
Having gained a degree in Psychology at University College London, Katherine subsequently qualified as a Chartered Accountant. She then spent 10 years in management consultancy, before moving to take on a number of senior HR roles in Serco, BT and then Mitie plc, where she held the position of Group HR Director. She now runs her own consultancy business and her first book, Unleash Your Leader, which she co-authored with her husband, Emmanuel Gobillot, was published this year.
Unleash Your Leader – How to Win in Business by Emmanuel Gobillot and Katherine Thomas is out now. Published by Urbane Business. RRP: £12.99