Leadership

By Dr. Pippa Malmgren, Co-author of The Leadership Lab, Winner of the 2019 Business Book of the Year

Women need to overcome many things in the work place, and so do men.

So, what is more specific to women than to men? A few things. First, we have to remember that humans are still part of the animal kingdom. They respond to many things subconsciously. Studies cosnsistently show that humans are more likely to designate someone as a leader if they are tall and loud. Many organizations are thus run on the “whoever speaks first and loudest” principle. This results, as everybody knows, are not great. We end up promoting the blowhards not only because of these qualities. It is also because we believe that confidence equals competence. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says in his Harvard Business School article called “ Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” So, women not only have to learn how to speak up. They have to learn to be more confident.

This is easier said than done. Chamorro-Premuzic found that men typically say they are ready for a job when they are only 40 per cent to 50 per cent ready. Women typically wait until they are 100 per cent ready before they will say so. What is the end result of this gap? We get many men who overpromise and underdeliver and almost no women who underpromise and overdeliver. Maybe women should step forward and alleviate this gap?

But, you cannot change your height. So, for women, competing on size is never going to work. It’s not just height as well. Notice how men will drape their arms over nearby chairs and manspread across two places at a table. They are commanding space. Women are not designed for this. But, there are ways of taking the control back. One is to be better prepared. This does not just mean doing the homework. It also means figuring out where all the vested interests are. Women may not have height, but they have convening power. They can figure out how to align opposing interests before the meeting starts. They can be ready to explain not only the best course of action but to show that she had already garnered support for her vision. If she can also show everyone why it would be in their best interest to follow her, they are far more likely to. People trust someone who has thought through the consequences for someone else. Men could do all this too. Good leaders always do this. But we have few really good leaders these days. Women can easily take advantage of the shocking shortage of good leadership.

Not all women want to be leaders. Not all men want to be leaders either. But we still have to learn how to successfully swim in a fluid environment. Too many people think a job or a role or a current project are fixed and lasting things. Organizations are not fixed like a mountain that we are learning how to climb. Organizations are fluid. They are in perpetual motion. The skill needed is less like a mountain climber and more like a surfer. The people will change. The purpose of the work will change. So, women need to get better at managing highly fluid and ever-changing environments. A smart move is to set one’s sights on the next job, role, career, organisation that looks interesting to you.

Men constantly work with headhunters so that they know exactly what their skills are worth in the open market. Those relationships lead to the phone call about a new job that the man can fill before its even advertised. Headhunters regularly complain that women won’t take their phone calls. They want to recruit them but can’t. This is often because the woman either feels unready for the role (see above) or because she is happy where she is. That’s fine. Be happy where you are. But find out what the market rate is for your skill set. Take the free opportunity to build relationships with the headhunter who will help you find the next job even if it’s years away. Know your market.

Finally, women, and men, need to build out interests other than work. Life is short. It is important to find fun and balance. Having outside interests also makes you a more interesting person. But it serves in one further way as well. Most people solve big problems at work when they are 1. Not at work. 2. Not working 3. Not trying to solve a work problem 4. Doing something pretty inane like taking a bath or washing the dishes or going for a walk. Therefore, if you want to really excel at work, you must leave bandwidth for your brain and build in time for switching your head off. Men should do this too. But it is possible that women have an advantage here. Men more frequently pin their identity on their work. This makes them slaves to work and prevents them from switching off. Women are less likely to believe that their work role equals their identity. So, they have more freedom to park work at work. This is a gift that not many men have and many others wish they had. Take advantage of it.