You have had a great career. You know you are good, can make things happen, have a wealth of experience. Now you want that non-executive role, the final promotion to the top, to influence more widely and share your experience.
But it is proving harder than you thought. What is holding you back?
The issues as to why women are still not making the top positions are complex and a mix of history and culture as to how talent has been found and promoted. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook neatly gives a stack of evidence on this in her famous TED talk on why we have too few women leaders. Like Sheryl, I also believe there is more that women can do to help themselves.
I have spent the last two years listening to and working with more than 1,000 senior women in the UK and the UAE (the issues and messages are surprisingly similar) trying to understand how women put themselves on the radar to be the first choice for promotion, board appointments, speaking opportunities and more.
Here I want to look at this – what can women themselves do?
My research with women hasn’t been academic research but a few themes emerged so strongly that I have shared them in this paper Women Leaders: stepping out of the shadows. Here are the key points that I have focused on.
It was a head-hunter who first said to me that personal branding is really important. Initially I thought it was rather fluffy, but the more I have worked with senior women the more I realise that this is an essential first step.
I recently gave a talk to 50 fantastic directors in the hospitality and leisure industry. I checked out all the women’s LinkedIn profiles beforehand and was struck by how few stood out or were memorable. Their profiles were workmanlike to put it kindly!
Most had just dumped a CV into their profile, not thought about how they wanted to be seen, what keywords a headhunter or conference organiser might be searching for or how they could stand out for particular expertise.
When writing my talk I pointed out that, from their profiles, the women “managed brands, multi-sites; some had lots of drive, humour and demonstrated leadership abilities”. But does any of this make them a ‘buy’. Who makes brands sing so that they become the latest trend-setter and grow sales by 20% a year? Or who is particularly good at operational efficiency and the ‘go to’ person for private equity firms because they deliver the lowest operating costs in the industry?
I have written dozens of LinkedIn profiles over the last year; both men and women can feel uncomfortable when they see their achievements packaged properly. One woman emailed me to say, “It is me, but can I have 24 hours to get used to me?!”
Getting your personal brand right is not about being brash or self-promotional. It just ensures you are clear in your own head about your expertise and then make sure others can see what you have to offer (there are lots of tips in this personal branding blog and how to write directors’ LinkedIn profiles to help you do that)
One of the things I challenge women on, is how much time and priority they give to themselves – as opposed to the job?
When I spoke at the hospitality lunch, mentioned above, on this I saw women around the room nodding. They don’t give their careers as much time as ‘the job’ or their family.
Last year I worked with two really impressive female leaders who could not understand how a former peer, also a woman, had soared ahead of them in terms of board appointments, being an international speaker, being the ‘go to’ person for governments to consult with.
When we unpicked the last ten years for all of them, one of the things that struck me was that too often they cancelled key events or turned up late or unprepared because of crises in the office. This other woman gave priority to the events where she was speaking and could make a difference.
Key to making an impact is preparation. Knowing your audience, making it relevant, being clear about what should happen at the end and really planning this impact. This is not about putting yourself before your company or work. Men see this as an integral part of success for themselves and their business. But too many women think they are being selfish if they do this.
I looked at becoming a ‘thought leader’ in this earlier blog. It can sound rather grand and just for other people, for academics and gurus.
Yet it would be very odd if, having spent the last 30 years being excellent in your industry or a particular area of business, you didn’t have ideas about how things could be done better? You will have seen trends developing, spotted issues developing, accurately predicted where a sector is going, had new ideas about solving a problem.
Once, if you wanted to be a thought leader you had to find a publisher and write a book or publish academic research. Now you can write a blog and post it on LinkedIn in a matter of hours, get back dozens of comments within the hour and position your expertise to hundreds if not thousands of your contacts and others. Recent blogs that I have posted on LinkedIn have had 2,000 and 3,000+ views, really great comments and hundreds of likes. It is a very easy way to network and remind people of your expertise.
If you want to see how all of this can work for a leader, read Pat Chapman-Pincher’s blog on how she has been developing her brand and thought leadership to influence business leaders.
Never has there been so much willingness to see women at the top. Now is our time! Corporations and others are doing a great deal to look at how they operate and attract more women. But we women also have to play our part.
As a female leader, are you giving time and effort to your career – or are you hoping your good work will be noticed and you will be ‘asked to dance’!
I would really welcome wider views on this topic – does this resonate, do you think there are bigger issues, do women need to do more to help themselves?