THE BLOG
03/18/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

Kathy Caprino on Women's Ways of Leading

With the publication of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In, the dearth of women in corporate leadership is back in the news again. Here we are, years after Virginia Slims congratulated professional women, "You've come a long way, baby," it seems we haven't come such a long way after all.

Amidst the lively debate about corporate culture, structural barriers to women's advancement, and what women themselves need to do to advance their careers, this seems like a good time to consult with an expert on women and leadership. Kathy Caprino is the author of Breakdown Breakthrough (Berrett-Koehler), in which she outlines the 12 hidden crises working women face, based on her year-long, nation-wide research study of 100 professional women. Kathy is a leadership coach, keynote speaker and sought-after media expert.

Women leaders have been in the news a lot recently. There seems to be a bit of a brouhaha developing around "frenemies" Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Sandberg is telling women to "lean in" while Slaughter is saying "we can't have it all ... not all at once, anyway." What's your take on these two women and their points of view?

I'm thrilled that these issues and debates have reached an international audience, and finally, the concepts of work-life integration, women's leadership, gender roles and cultural and organizational change are in the national conversation. I've lived all the challenges Sheryl and Anne-Marie speak and write about -- I've been a corporate vice president as well as a self-employed leadership coach. My take is a bit different from both Sandberg and Slaughter: I incorporate a spiritual perspective that life is most meaningful, joyful and fulfilling when we follow our hearts and spirits in pursuing an authentic path that aligns with our personal values, passions and non-negotiable standards. This is true even when that flies in the face of what the media and other female and male "leaders" tell us we should do. In my view, we suffer when we pursue a path that goes against what we believe. All of it is meaningless -- success, money, fame, power -- if we're not happy in it.

In other words, my advice is to follow the path that speaks to you most. If you long to succeed in this existing corporate competitive career model, then indeed, "lean in" (as Sheryl Sandberg asserts). Or, as Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests, if you think the model is broken, then work to revise it and support the radical changes necessary to pave the way for more women to lead.

If you long instead to launch your own entrepreneurial venture and have done all that's required to understand what this means and what it will demand of you, then move forward and formulate a new business and career model based on your authentic leadership principles and beliefs.

Or, if staying home to raise your children is what you want, then find a way to do it. Watching the new documentary film Makers: Women Who Make America revealed to me (among many things) the mistake we want to avoid -- of making other women wrong and putting them down for their choices.

Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo! also made news by changing company policy on telecommuting. Critics have objected to her decision, pointing out that it's especially hard on women and families. Other critics say that people who work remotely (including from home) are more productive. But Mayer's defenders point out that the issue isn't productivity -- it's creativity. And they cite research indicating that creativity and innovation are higher when employees are in the same location where they can interact and spark new ideas with one another. Yahoo! is a company that depends on non-stop innovation. If they don't get better at innovation, the whole company will go under and everyone will be at home ... looking for new jobs. What do you think? What would you do if you were Mayer?

Not knowing Mayer or her specific organizational needs and intentions regarding this move, I was personally disappointed by it because the concept that employees must be in physical proximity at all times with each other to be fully innovative, productive and successful is, in my view, an outdated one. New generations of leaders are going to figure this out better than we have today. Flexibility in the ways we commute, work, communicate, collaborate and innovate is essential if we want to motivate and retain top performers. We need to uncover new ways to help employees be the best they can be while also honoring the fact that individuals have other, equally important priorities to attend to (family, etc.). Leaders will not succeed over the long haul if they force their employees to adhere to the old-fashioned restrictive "face time/full time" model. I believe there are ways to increase innovation and creativity without reverting to a ban on telecommuting. The days of forcing workers to come into the office each day on a full-time basis in order to innovate together successfully are fading fast.

Your area of expertise is women and leadership. What's the current state of leadership opportunities for women in American business today? Are women in government faring any better than women in corporations?

The statistics remain very bleak, and the needle is not moving as it needs to. In all forms of leadership in our country, women are lagging seriously behind. In corporate America, women remain only 16 percent of senior leadership, and in the political arena, the U.S. trails behind much of the world, ranking 90th in the number of women in our national legislature (as of 2010, according to the Women's Campaign Fund). So much needs to change and shift in the U.S. for a pathway to be created for women to ascend to leadership.

Here's my take as to the top six reasons women aren't leading in corporate America: 1) the differences between men and women are not yet well-understood and embraced; 2) whole-self authenticity is still not allowed; 3) life and family priorities clash with extreme work demands; 4) our gender roles have been intractable, meaning that women are still doing the majority of domestic work even when both spouses work full-time, 5) women are still being discriminated against; 6) American society doesn't encourage men to take a step back professionally and support their wives' professional goals; and 7) women have not been personally successful navigating through a model that just doesn't fit.

What needs to change is a myriad of individual, cultural, organization, and global factors, along with busting the myth that women are less ambitious than men. Women are not less ambitious -- it's the cost of ambition that gets in the way -- and what they're ambitious for doesn't fit the existing picture of "success."

I've read that more people work for women-owned companies than all the Fortune 500 put together. If that's still true today, why should women care about what's going on in big corporations at all? Perhaps women should just leave the Fortune 500 to the "boys" and women should just start their own businesses instead. What do you think? Crazy idea?

I believe wholeheartedly that entrepreneurship or solopreneurship is a pathway to success and fulfillment for women. But there are realities that still need to be faced. First, women are still under-earning in the entrepreneurial world. Just because women turn to a new path doesn't mean there aren't critical lessons that need to be learned about how to create the most profitable businesses possible.

However, the entrepreneurial path is not the answer for all women. Many thousands of women want and deserve success in the corporate arena, and are not desirous of launching their own endeavors. It's a completely different journey to launch and build a business than working for someone else, and many don't want to go it alone.

I believe it's vitally important to not only support entrepreneurship but also attempt to revise the deeply challenged existing corporate career model in place today in America. We need a new model that embraces diversity and inclusion so that American business can thrive at the highest level possible. Without women in more equal measures in corporate leadership today, the U.S. will continue to lag and fall behind other countries in terms of innovation, creativity and competition, and financial success. The business case is irrefutably there (see McKinsey's report, for example) supporting the need for diversity in corporate leadership -- if only senior leaders would do what's necessary.

Got any advice for women who are raising daughters and want to prepare their daughters for future success in their careers?

I am blessed to have a beautiful, brilliant daughter in her freshman year in college, and my advice to her is the same I give all young women I meet and coach (and to all parents raising self-reliant, vibrant women). First, it's a myth and terribly misguided notion to believe that you can't be of service in the world as you want to, while also making great money and being happy in all ways doing it. Our culture somehow perpetuates this idea that you'll be poor and miserable if you pursue your passion. That's just dead wrong. How do I know? Because I spend every day in my professional life helping people pursue what they care about, and they're doing just that with amazing success.

For more information about Kathy Caprino and her coaching and consulting work, contact: www.elliacommunications.com