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YWCA Women’s Leadership Conference – “Unwritten Rules”

Posted by lyndabell on March 20, 2010

Last week I attended the YWCA of Cleveland Women’s Leadership Conference.  What a great opportunity to refresh and learn alongside many other talented women.  The Keynote speakers and Break-out Session speakers raised interesting questions and delivered messages to help women gain a competitive edge for career advancement.  In today’s blog I am sharing information based on the message delivered by Lynn Harris, the Morning Keynote Speaker.

Lynn’s new book is “Unwritten Rules.  What Women Need to Know About Leading in Today’s Organizations.”  

Lynn began her presentation by sharing some statistics that I found to be startling.  In the USA as measured in Fortune 500 Companies, women make up 15.2% of the Board of Directors positions and 13.5% of Corporate Officer positions.  Recent news leads us to believe the ranks of women in the workplace are growing, however the real statistic is that women are filling ranks of middle management but not senior leadership roles.  We are not getting better at providing opportunity for women to move into senior leadership roles. 

I believe we all intuitively know that diversity in the workplace is a good thing.  Lynn provided some interesting data and thoughts on how important diversity is to the economic success of organizations.  Consider these for yourself. 

  • Financial Performance – There is a direct link between the number of women in senior level positions and the financial performance of the organization.  Catalyst research reported “companies with higher percentages of women board directors, on average, financially outperformed companies with the lowest percentage of women board directors by significant margins.  The same correlation exists  between the percentage of women corporate officers and financial performance.”
  • Voice of the Customer – Women influence the largest percentage of buying decisions, however women are not in influencing and senior leadership positions in organizations.  Do we really need men in senior leadership roles in organizations trying to think like the female consumer?  How much more powerful would the organization be if we had more women in senior leadership roles influencing the strategy and growth of the organization?
  • Diversity – Intuitively we know we are better at making decisions when we do not all look-alike, act alike, think alike etc…  Working with diverse teams is more difficult at first but once the team members develop skills to work in diverse cultures, decision-making is more effective.
  • Talent Pool – Even with the current economic crisis, analysts continue to predict a future shortage in the senior leadership ranks.  Including women in the senior leadership ranks provides organizations a bigger talent pool.

  Lynn defines the current state “Unwritten Rules” as follows:

  1. Senior Leaders are available anytime and anywhere.  These means full-time availability,  10+ hours per day in the office, ability to travel extensively, and have geographic mobility.
  2. Senior Leaders have a linear career path.  Continuous career history without the career breaks typically seen in a woman’s career for focus on the family.  Senior Leaders begin to break away from the pack in their mid-30’s, again a time when women often take a break to focus on the family.
  3. Senior Leaders are competitive.  Lynn described this as motivated by money and position.  When torn between career and family, they chose career.  Women often choose differently.  They often put their careers on hold to start, and often to raise, a family.
  4. Senior Leaders promote themselves.  They speak confidently about themselves and build a network with people who can support their career growth.  When women behave “the same” as men in this area it is often viewed by others very differently.  Women are not expected to have strong negotiation skills and an assertive style.  They are often not rewarded for the same behaviors. 

These “Unwritten Rules” disadvantage women and create a work environment where it is difficult for women to advance or succeed in Senior Leadership positions.  Lynn provided tips she considers to be mandatory for professional development.

  • Due Diligence – Do your homework on the organization before you join.  Ask companies what they are doing to get more women into Senior Leadership positions.  Ask them what you would need to do to move forward in the organization.  Research the organization, the diversity of the Board and the Senior Leadership Team.
  • Strategic Influence – Build skills in the competency of Influencing.  Invest in skill development.
  • Networking – Develop and maintain professional relationships.  Don’t think of networking as smarmy.  Don’t ever stop investing time in building and maintaining your professional relationships.  Set aside time to do this, it is critical.
  • Personal Sustainability – Take care of yourself.  This is body, mind and spirit.  You can’t perform well if you don’t look after yourself.  Women have a tendency to take care of everyone else first.  Take care of yourself first.  It’s like the preflight message:  Give yourself oxygen before you try to help others (paraphrased).
  • Authenticity – You must understand your values and stay true to yourself.  You don’t have to behave like a man, your strength and contribution is in being a woman.
  • Mentoring and Coaching – If you don’t have a mentor, get two.  One inside the company and one outside the company.  And always seek one-on-one coaching.  If you can afford it or influence the organization to provide it, seek the skill of a credentialed coach for developmental feedback.

In the end, understand your values, develop skills, understand the “Unwritten Rules”, and don’t try to behave like a man.  Be your authentic self.

Lynn’s book is “Unwritten Rules What Women Need to Know About Leading in Today’s Organizations.”  I highly recommend it!


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