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Why we need to think differently about leadership

The news that women now make up a third of board members at the UK’s top public companies, almost a year earlier than expected, is welcome. But there is still work to do, as Xenia Taliotios finds.

Press Clipping: ICEAW Insights

According to Cranfield University research, women spend far less time on FTSE boards – the average tenure for female executive directors is 3.3 years, while for men it is 6.6 years. This, says the report’s author, could show “that some companies have simply been ticking a box”. 

Bolstering the box-ticking theory is the fact that there is far worse representation at the operational level: women made up only 28.6% of the ‘leadership team’ (the top two tiers) at FTSE 100 firms as of June last year, way below the UK’s 33% goal for 2020. One remedy is to rethink how organisations define and talk about leadership. 

Louise Brown, Founder of Louise Brown Coaching and a former director at KPMG, says companies need to move away from predetermined ideas about the character traits or personalities needed to complete particular roles, which have usually been defined by male leaders.

The cultural shift that’s needed, says Brown, is from one where people are told about their job role – “This is what’s required. This is what needs to be done. This is how it needs to be done” – to one where they’re more simply told, “This is the problem. We need someone to help us solve it”. 

Doing so will help women see themselves in more senior roles, and so be more successful leaders in all tiers of the workforce, says Brown. 

If they feel they have to step into a defined role that the culture of a company implies must be done in a particular way, they are less likely to think they will either get the role or make a success of it. 

Being asked to solve a problem rather than fill a certain role – such as managing finances or marketing products – is a “completely different proposition” says Brown, and yet “the only difference is the culture,” no one is being asked to change the business.

A more open-minded view of leadership is needed because stereotypes of male and female behaviour seep into the workplace and can make it harder for women to lead, according to Geraldine Gallacher, Founder and Management Director of The Executive Coaching Consultancy. In a recent article for the London Accountant, one of ICAEW’s Communities, she wrote: “Studies show that women leaders have a tendency to display more affiliative and collaborative behaviour than men, but this is a result of socialisation, not biology. 

“Even so, we expect male leaders to be confident, clear and decisive, and women leaders to be nurturing, collaborative and empathetic. 

“As a result, if women don’t display empathetic or affiliative behaviour, a question mark hangs over their ability to lead. I’ve coached countless women that lead competently and whose style leans more heavily on stereotypically male behaviour. Those that copied male behaviour were often penalised for doing so.”

Redefining how an organisation talks about leadership would benefit men as well as women, argues Brown. And she says it’s important for everyone to discuss and learn about leadership because both men and women “need to be comfortable with women doing these [leadership] roles, and not automatically assume that they’ll do them in a certain way or not do them at all”.

Rebecca Wingeatt, South East Audit Finance Leader at PwC UK, felt the need to do an external leadership course after taking on a new role following the birth of her child. “When I took on a senior finance position after maternity leave, I felt anxious about how best to balance my career with being a good parent. I wanted validation outside PwC that I had the skills for my role.”

Wingeatt’s need for validation is just one example of how women can still feel they must do more to prove themselves ready for leadership than many men. Changing that will go a long way to changing the number of women leaders at all levels of a company and not just round the boardroom table.

For more on how I help leaders unlock growth by leading from a more human perspective, click here.


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