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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