Coaching women to lead

Yesterday I interviewed Averil Leimon, co-author of a new book published by Routledge, Coaching Women to Lead, and co-founder of White Water Strategies, an executive coaching company.

The book brings together the arguments for providing women with specific coaching, when it should be introduced, and the business case for maximising women’s participation at all levels of corporate life. Demographic statistics show that we are heading for a “leadership cliff” and that the need for qualified leaders is so urgent that if we continue to fail to re-engage the interests of talented women, businesses will fail.

Leimon trained as a clinical psychologist and there is a scientific robustness to her argument often missing in books of this kind. In a chapter, “What women want”, she presents the results of questionnaires filled in by students at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and then compares those with 25 in-depth interviews with successful women at executive committee level in a range of workplace settings. The “stereo findings” were revealing. The successful women spoke of having had a hard ride to the top, having to prove themselves more than male counterparts and in the case of financial services, seeing men make partner ahead of them. They spoke of being unable to be “authentically themselves”, adopting a masculine style in dress and approach at work. Leimon says:

“Women don’t want to be seen as strident and they don’t want to be seen to stand up for other women because the perception will then be they are ‘feminists’.”

Questionnaire respondents wanted help playing the game, networking and with role models. Neither group, Leimon reports, was good at strategically planning a career and developing networks to help achieve that plan. She says:

“Men do this instinctively. They are always looking to the next step up, while women focus on doing the job they have as well as possible, believing hard work will reap rewards.”

What emerged from both sets of data was that confidence was key to women’s career progression. Leimon, who coaches both men and women, says women

“are generally risk-averse, which means avoiding high-profile, potentially risky roles. They tend to be not good at putting themselves forward, preferring to work hard in the background.”

This can lead to lack of visibility, and a perception that they are unambitious.

“Women often say to me ‘I’m not ambitious. It’s just a job. Money doesn’t matter.’ It’s as though they are unable to be upfront about being ambitious.”

She argues:

“Coaching shouldn’t be about getting women up to speed, but helping them come to a realisation about how they are holding themselves back.”

Women, she says, need to learn how to play to their strengths, map a way through the corporate labyrinth and develop confidence.

“It’s about developing a repertoire of skills, of finding your leadership voice, developing presence.”

Leimon says there are too many diversity committees in the private and public sectors doing nothing. Organisations need to take action.

“Look at Unilever’s ‘just one more’ policy. Every manager in every team across all Unilever’s many companies were told to include just one more woman in their team to achieve personal bonuses. It’s not rocket science. It works.”

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.