Not long ago, I had a meeting with a client organization that is working to advance more women to the executive suite. One of the key male executives commented, "We have plenty of talented women in the pipeline who are right at the cusp of being ready for senior leadership, but they're just not strategic enough." Our research at SHAMBAUGH indicates this idea that women are not as strategic as men is a commonly held belief.
However, in working with and coaching hundreds of women leaders, there's no question in my mind that women are strategic thinkers. After all, most women constantly fill multiple roles. This requirement gives them critical problem solving skills and the ability to orchestrate complex situations -- two areas that are closely related to strategic thinking skills. So the issue is not that women aren't strategic thinkers. The problem is that they sometimes don't come across that way. And in business, as in life, perception is reality.
The good news is that the adjustments women need to make in order to develop their strategic skills and to be perceived as being strategic are not particularly difficult or complex. SHAMBAUGH's coaching practice for women and our women in leadership and learning program (WILL) not only help women to be aware of their strategic capabilities but also show up that way based on the following three key areas:
Broad-based Experience - Relative to men, women often lack the strategic experience that comes from time spent in P&L, operations and line positions. In addition, women tend to mistakenly believe that they need to be experts in their current position or functional area. As a result, they focus intently on that aspect of the business or organization, narrowing their perspective.
Instead, women need to proactively seek positions, projects, and assignments outside of their position, department or area of expertise. Cross-functional and external assignments offer a broader perspective, the opportunity to stretch and grow, a better understanding of how the pieces of the business fit and work together and a more integrated, strategic view.
Executive Presence - A recent study identified the top three differentiators that make for a successful executive, and one of those key differentiators is executive presence. At the senior ranks, everyone has technical competency, but not everyone has presence. Presence is the way you carry yourself: The persona that you convey in meetings and conversations. Executive presence is characterized by self-confidence, a sense of authority, decisiveness and assertiveness. Women have a tendency to be helpful and polite to the point of not stating their opinions or defending themselves as an authority.
If you are a woman who wants to enhance your executive presence, know and state your opinions firmly, backing them with strong rationale. Ask thoughtful, strategic questions rather than simply sharing information and blindly agreeing with others. Boards and executives are looking for people who can challenge old ways of thinking and doing. Don't personalize situations. See business as business. Feelings don't count ... organizational goals do.
Language - Oftentimes, women's choice of words when communicating can send the message that they are not as strategic as men. It's not necessarily what women say but how they say it.
For example, consider a senior level, female HR professional who is concerned about a lack of cross-collaboration within the organization. She presents to the executive team "an initiative to create a more inclusive culture," but the bottom-line focused senior executives tune her out. Consider the difference if she had reframed the proposal to reflect a more strategic approach: "Given the reality of our current talent shortage, we need to look at a human capital plan and develop an inclusive, learning-based culture that will align with and support our growth strategy."
All leaders -- men and women -- need to speak the language of business. When presenting information, reports or proposals, do your homework first. Consider the strategic aspects of your project. How does it fit into the organization's vision, business strategy, growth plan or annual goals? How will it drive better business results? You must understand how it will impact the bottom line and be prepared to communicate that connection clearly and succinctly.
While the common belief in business may be that women are not as strategic as men, recent research validates my view that women are every bit as strategic as men, if not more so. Studies show that women actually have more connections in their brains than men, giving them a greater ability to make complex, strategic decisions. Furthermore, a recent study by the University of Hertfordshire showed women performed 70 percent better than men on a test pertaining to strategic planning.
What do you think? Are men naturally more strategic than women? Or are women as strategic as men but by their nature aren't perceived that way? What else could women do to enhance their strategic perspectives?
SHAMBAUGH's Coaching Programs for Women and their Women In Leadership and Learning (WILL) Program (the first leadership program in the U.S. specifically designed for women) have been successfully impacting the careers of women leaders for more than 17 years. Visit www.shambaughleadership.com to learn more about SHAMBAUGH's integrated and holistic approach towards developing and advancing women in the workplace.