Closing the Leadership Gender Gap: Susan Colantuono at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Women represent 50 percent of middle management and professional positions but the percentages of women at the top of organizations, like Kathleen Murphy, whom you’ve heard, and Gail Goodman who’s speaking later, represent not even a third of that number. So some people hear that statistic and they ask, why do we have so few women leaders? But I look at that statistic and if you, like me, believe that leadership manifests at every level, you would see that there’s a tremendous, awesome resource of leaders who are leading in middle management, which raises a different question: “Why are there so many women mired in the middle, and what has to happen to take them to the top?” So some of you might be some of those women who are in middle management and seeking to move up in your organization.

Well, Tonya is a great example of one of these women. I met her two years ago. She was a vice president in a Fortune 50 company. And she said to me with a sense of deep frustration, “I’ve worked really hard to improve my confidence and my assertiveness and develop a great brand. I get terrific performance evals from my boss. My 360s in the organization let me know that my teams love working for me. I’ve taken every management course that I can here. I’m working with a terrific mentor and yet I’ve been passed over twice for advancement opportunities, even when my manager knows that I’m committed to moving up and even interested in an international assignment. I don’t understand why I’m being passed over.”

So what Tonya doesn’t realize is that there’s a missing 33 percent of the career success equation for women, and it’s understanding what this missing 33 percent is that’s required to close the gender gap at the top. So if you have listened to Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk, get ready for women in leadership 20. In order to move up in organizations, you have to be known for your leadership skills. And this would apply to any of you, women or men. It means that you have to be recognized for using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness in others.

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Put in other language, it means you have to use your skills and talents and abilities to help the organization achieve its strategic financial goals and do that by working effectively with others, inside of the organization and outside. And although all three of these elements of leadership are important when it comes to moving up in organizations, they aren’t equally important. So pay attention to the green box as I move forward.

In seeking and identifying employees with high potential, the potential to go to the top of organizations, the skills and competencies that relate to that green box are rated twice as heavily as those in the other two elements of leadership. These skills and competencies can be summarized as business, strategic and financial acumen.

In other words, this skill set has to do with understanding where the organization is going, what its strategy is, what financial targets it has in place, and understand your role in moving the organization forward. This is that missing 33 percent of the career success equation for women. Not because it’s missing in our capabilities or abilities, but because it’s missing in the advice that we’re given. Someone’s affirming that that’s been their experience. Here’s what I mean by that.

Five years ago, I was asked to moderate a panel of executives, and the topic for the evening was “What do you look for in high-potential employees?” So think about the three elements of leadership as I summarize for you what they told me. They said, “We look for people who are smart and hardworking and committed and trustworthy and resilient.” So which element of leadership does that relate to? Personal greatness. They said, “We look for employees who are great with our customers, who empower their teams, who negotiate effectively, who are able to manage conflict well and are overall great communicators.” Which element of leadership does that equate to? Engaging the greatness in others.

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And then they pretty much stopped. So I asked, “Well, what about people who understand your business, where it’s going, and their role in taking it there? And what about people who are able to scan the external environment, identify risks and opportunities, make strategy or make strategic recommendations? And what about people who are able to look at the financials of your business, understand the story that the financials tell, and either take appropriate action or make appropriate recommendations?”

And to a man, they said, “That’s a given.” So I turned to the audience of a 150 women and I asked, “How many of you have ever been told that the door-opener for career advancement is your business, strategic and financial acumen, and that all the other important stuff is what differentiates you in the talent pool?” Three women raised their hand. And I’ve asked this question of women all around the globe in the five years since and the percentage is never much different. So this is obvious, right? But how can it be? Well, there are primarily three reasons that there’s this missing 33 percent in the career success advice given to women.

First of all, when organizations direct women toward resources that focus on the conventional advice that we’ve been hearing for over 40 years, there’s a notable absence of advice that relates to business, strategic and financial acumen. Much of the advice is emphasizing personal actions that we need to take, like become more assertive, become more confident, develop your personal brand. Things that Tonya has been working on. And advice about working with other people, things like learn to self-promote, get a mentor, enhance your network. And virtually nothing said about the importance of business, strategic and financial acumen.

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