Developing Women Leaders – Why Should We Pay Attention?

women leadersWe know organizations are currently challenged with a lack of women in leadership positions. While women make up more than half the workforce, the number of women steadily shrinks as you move to each successively higher level in the organization. With CEO’s becoming increasingly more worried about finding the key skills needed for growth, paying attention to this talent pool and your strategies for their development makes more competitive and financial sense than ever.

I’ve been working with senior leaders for two decades. As a result of the larger number of male vs. female leaders in senior leader positions in most organizations, I’ve worked with many more men. So much so that whenever I have those opportunities to work with senior female leaders, it’s always an experience that makes me sit up and pay attention. Many leadership studies confirm what I’ve discovered along the way, that women are strong leaders with high performance in core leadership competencies.

Here are some of the latest findings that have me intrigued:

Where Women Leaders Excel-The Usual Suspects and the Ones You Might Not Suspect:  According to a fascinating 2014 study in Business Insider from Zenger Folkman on leadership effectiveness, by a statistically significant difference, women are considered more effective. And not just in some of the categories in which we might make assumptions. Women do excel at nurturing competencies like developing others, inspiring and motivating others, relationship building, collaboration, and teamwork. But the competencies where the effectiveness of women leaders exceeds that of the men the most are taking initiative, displaying integrity and honesty, and driving for results.

The Power of Feedback:  Critical to professional growth is the integration of feedback. The Zenger Folkman study also shows women are especially more effective over the long term of their careers (through the age of 60). The authors say this may in part be explained by how well women maintain a sustained focus on a competency called “Practicing Self Development,” which measures the extent to which people ask for feedback and make changes based on that feedback. Men practice this too, but this habit begins to decline for men at around the age of 40.

The feedback theme also shows up as important to the female leaders of this generation – the Millennials. Female millennials matter because they are more highly educated and are entering the workforce in larger numbers than any of the previous generations. A Pricewaterhouse study, “Developing Tomorrows Female Leaders” reports that one of the strongest female millennial traits is that they welcome and expect regular feedback on job performance.

Female millennials are estimated to form approximately 25% of the global workforce by 2020. They are also the most confident of any female generation before and expect to be able to rise to the most senior levels with their current employer.

The Opportunity: There’s no longer a question about whether there is a competitive and financial toll to pay with failure to increase leadership gender diversity in organizations. The questions most companies are asking themselves now are how they can get as many female leaders as possible into senior leadership in the near term. They are also asking how they can better manage the leadership pipeline for female leaders throughout their career to identify and develop talented women now for future leadership positions.

How is your company identifying and then providing development and feedback to your women leaders?

To capitalize on the power of developing your women leaders, here are some suggestions: 

  • Provide opportunities for women to receive feedback – mentor programs, formalized 360 assessments, peer coaching, and clarity of leader competency expectations at every level of leadership.
  • Understand the most important needs of millennials, so leaders are prepared to engage them to get their best efforts – flexibility, face to face appreciation and feedback, team collaboration, workforce diversity and inclusion, and finding meaning and purpose in their work.
  • Provide the right training and development at the right time – training and development are cited as the most important benefit that millennials value from an employer. Identify and provide leadership skill development needs at every level – from in-house classes or programs to more advanced external programs that focus on senior leadership development.

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