Getting a seat at the proverbial table takes the commitment of mastering these three skills.
So, for whatever progress women are making getting to the executive floor, this progress has been shockingly slow, and many women who aspire to higher leadership positions remain caught in the middle or in the "belly of the pipeline."
Do you know what "leadership table" you want to be sitting at two to three years from now? Do you have a game plan for getting there? Are you building an all-star team who will coach, mentor, and sponsor you on your career journey? Research indicates there are three must-have leadership skills that women leaders need to master to get the roles and positions best suited to their skills, interests, abilities, and dreams: Know your career goals, establish a plan to meet those goals, and learn to promote your value.
Stop the 'I don't know' response
The first strategic leadership skill to master is the ability to answer: "What is my ultimate or next career goal?" Many women do not see this as a skill; however, the most common response to that question is "I don't know."
Those three words are code for any number of other more authentic responses, such as "I have been so focused on getting my short-term to-do list done that I haven't taken the time to really think about that question" or "I am afraid to tell you (and maybe even myself) what I really want, for fear that you will laugh at me or that if I set it as a goal I will fail."
After working for major corporations early in her career, one woman, who has been a successful entrepreneur for more than 25 years, reports her experience at finding her "leadership tables" on the other end of the continuum:
"When I was little we would have family over for dinner, and I always wanted to sit at the adult's table. I was allowed to only when dinner was over. When I got to high school I started to choose the tables where I wanted to sit. I wanted to be at the cheerleading table and the student council table. And in college it was the sorority leadership table and the Phi Beta Kappa table. And then as I moved into adulthood, I wanted to be at the management table, then the professional consultant table and, finally, the own-your-own-business table. It has never occurred to me to not sit at my table of choice."
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg prides herself in never having had a career plan. But it is clear from her book Lean In that she always has wanted to be at the head table. From working for Larry Summers at the World Bank and at the U.S. Treasury Department, to Google, to working for Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, she has developed the skill of knowing what leadership table was next best suited for her.
It is not enough for women to just say they want to sit at a leadership table; they have to specifically decide at which table they want to sit. The table chosen may not be at the top of the pyramid, but it needs to provide opportunities to tap their unique capabilities and be a fit with their other life choices.
Pam Iorio, a former mayor of Tampa, Florida, and author of Straightforward: Ways to Live and Lead, writes that after serving as a Hillsborough County commissioner, she was contemplating where she wanted to take her political career. Several advisors encouraged the married mother of two small children to pursue a state legislature position that would require a lot of travel and many days away from home. Iorio chose not to sit at that table and instead stay closer to home.
She soon was elected the county's supervisor of elections, during which time the 2000 presidential election debacle occurred in Florida. By choosing to stay at the head of the "mommy table" and sitting at what some told her was a "dead end" political table, she found herself on the national political stage discussing election processes and technology, which positioned her very well after her children were older to pursue her seat at the Tampa mayor table.
'If you can dream it, you can do it'
This famous Walt Disney quote can be a powerful motivating force for helping women move beyond their "I don't know" quandary. Once a leadership table goal is chosen, then the second strategic leadership skill women need to use is the ability to establish and implement a game plan for making progress toward that goal.
Historically, women often have subscribed to the myth that "If I know what I want, if I just work hard, if I am a 'good girl,' if I'm smarter than anyone else—then I will get my just rewards: the raise, the promotion, the corner office."
It's not enough to just want to sit at a certain leadership table; women need to put strategies in place that will enable them to demonstrate that they've earned the right to sit at that table. One way is through developing their capabilities—getting the right education, training, and experiences so that they can make value-added contributions to the discussions that will take place at that table.
Also, women need to establish credibility by demonstrating that they and their teams can deliver results and contribute innovative business ideas that will strategically move the business forward and achieve bottom-line results.
Another part of a woman's plan should be building a support team. "It's not just what you know, it's who you know" is advice often given to women who don't see the importance of cultivating significant relationships. Women need to build a team to help them get to their leadership table of choice.
This all-star team needs to be diverse in terms of the functions and organizational levels they represent, their experiences, and their gender and age differences. This collection of individuals is the group women need to surround themselves with to coach, mentor, and sponsor them as they develop and execute their game plan toward their leadership table.
Iorio laments that too often women network because they are looking for friends, but when men network, they are looking for people who can help them get ahead. For many women, this idea of proactive and strategic networking seems to be a particularly difficult lesson to learn.
Women leaders tend to score lower on strategic skills and higher on tactical skills than their male counterparts. So given a choice as to whether they want to spend their time networking or getting their daily to-do list done, women tend to choose the latter. If building a relationship does not appear to have an immediate payoff, they would rather not spend the time.
Getting to the leadership table goes beyond just networking and coaching. It requires mentorship and sponsorship too. What's the difference between a mentor and a sponsor? A mentor is someone who shares wisdom, gives feedback, and helps to explain situational politics. A sponsor is an influential stakeholder who becomes an advocate and makes recommendations and referrals.
Show up and spotlight your value
The third strategic leadership skill that women need to develop and demonstrate is the ability to become comfortable and competent in the art of self-promotion.
In Knowing Your Value, Mika Brzezinski, co-host of the talk show Morning Joe, quotes several prominent women in business and government who find the whole concept of "selling yourself" to be uncomfortable and even distasteful. She felt the same way until she had to prove to MSNBC management that she was equally important to the success of the talk show as Joe Scarborough, its founder, who was getting paid considerably more than Brzezinski.
After successfully negotiating a new contract, she decided to conduct research about women's reluctance to self-promote and built a book around it.
Regardless of their capability and credibility, if women don't get comfortable in demonstrating this leadership competency of self-promotion, they won't get a seat at their leadership tables because people will be forced to guess what they could bring to those tables.
One symptom of this is referred to as the "good girl syndrome," which gets displayed by such behaviors as being overly modest, not wanting to be seen as overly aggressive when asking for a project or a job, actively seeking to not stand out, letting others monopolize conversations, and not expressing their views.
Why are some women comfortable and confident enough to engage in self-promotion and others are not? Much of it may be explained by the tension some women feel in the roles they want to play. From the time they are born, women are bombarded with messages about what they need to do and how they need to be to receive parental, teacher, and societal approval: Be nice, don't brag about yourself, don't be selfish, don't talk back, be a team player. But these qualities sometimes seem at odds with the stereotypical descriptions of leaders—people who are self-confident, ambitious, and aggressive.
Sandberg cites a study in her book that reveals that for men, success and likeability are positively correlated. For women, it is just the opposite. The more successful we are, the less we are liked by both men and women. In fact, when Sandberg got her first performance review from Mark Zuckerberg, he told her that "she cared too much about being liked" and that it would hold her back.
It is not enough to be the smartest woman in the room or get the best results—those just get women on the playing field. If women want to earn a seat at their leadership table of choice, they have to be known to people that matter, they have to own their value, and they need to consciously make a transition from "good girl" to great woman.
What Are Your Leadership Table Goals?
In a meeting with a new coaching client who was working at a midlevel position for a major pharmaceutical company, I learned that Lisa was relatively pleased with the progress she had been making in her career but was unsure about where to go next. She believed her ennui and confusion were affecting her leadership performance in her current job.
After Lisa gave me some background on her career progress, I said to her "I get how you got here, but one to two years from now with whom do you want to be sitting? What types of decisions do you want to be making? What results would you be proud to be achieving? The answers to those questions define your leadership table goals."
So, how about you? Are you unhappy with your career progress? Do you feel stuck? When you think about the dreams you had as a young woman—are you confused about how you ended up where you are today? Do you just know that you haven’t achieved the potential you are capable of? If you answered yes to even one of these questions, it is time to ask yourself: "What are my leadership table goals?"
Take a Big Leap Forward in Your Approach to Leadership
Tricia Naddaff, president and CEO of Management Research Group, offers the following perspective to aspiring women executives based on years of leadership assessment gender research.
Spend more time building your business acumen. According to MRG, bosses only see women as less effective than men in three competency areas (out of 26) but they are key areas related to “playing at a bigger table,” including business aptitude, financial understanding, and ability to see the big picture.
Make more time for strategic thinking and planning. Women tend to spend more time focusing on immediate and short-term results and do not make enough time to think longer term, which can place significant limitations on leadership advancement since strategic leadership becomes an increasing critical leadership skill for more senior and more complex leadership roles.
Develop ability to sell yourself and your ideas to others. If you are uncomfortable with this dimension, you are leaving others to translate your value and your ideas for you. Take the time to learn how to persuade others in your own compelling way and you will rapidly expand your credibility.
Finally, learn to delegate more so you can make time for higher level engagement. Women often resist delegating because they think they can do it faster or better, in addition to often having the empathetic perspective that their direct reports are too busy to be delegated to. This puts women in the deficit position of being overly tied to the day-to-day with less time to be strategic and build business acumen.