Developing Women Leaders? It’s Time For A New Narrative

women's leadership development

The Future of Women’s Leadership Development Demands a New Narrative

A narrative is a story that we hold onto often without knowing that we’re repeating the same story but adding new layers to justify the outcome. As with any good story, there is a defined plot, and the characters fall into familiar categories. There’s always a hero, a villain, a rescuer, a mentor, a lover, and a guide that leads the main character to some form of transformation. In the process of building the narrative, storytellers depart to create lofty goals, they initiate great programs but eventually return to the story that got them started in the first place. This voyage to nowhere is the same one that most organization embark on when they are challenged to create proactive and diverse leadership development pipelines for women.

The narrative cemented around leadership development is built on finding that needle in a haystack, the high-potentials, because we’ve concluded that there’s only one person or one set of individuals who have the potential to be leaders and the rest are meant to be worker beavers. We’ve been conditioned to feel that we can pull out the “high-potentials” from the pile, add some grooming wax to them, and magically they will be our next generation of leaders. For women it’s even more selective – we want high-potential replicas of male leaders. A bar that no woman can meet. Along the way, we select a few women, sprinkle them with pixie dust and claim victory. Predictably, this narrative is not producing the intended result – but we keep doing it over and over again.

To entrench the storyline we divide the task into select compartments, human resources is tasked with identifying high-potentials; training and development experts are tasked with building a robust leadership development programs, and diversity and inclusion is tasked with making sure we didn’t leave anyone behind. Then managers are asked to develop and identify a pipeline of potential candidates; employees are asked to be engaged in leadership development, and just before failure set in, a consultant is hired to evaluate succession planning and predictably sounds the doom and gloom alarm. Out of this cycle comes a brilliant canned strategic planning session loaded with recommends to identified more high-potential women and coach them to brilliance. At last, the problem solved – at least that’s what it says on paper. After following this storyline one could ask the glaring question, have you accomplished anything to move the needle for women leaders?

Who Are Your High-Potentials?

A bolder question that I would ask does anyone in your organization know a high-potential?

If I asked your leadership team to definite high potentials would anyone be able to answer the question definitively? Would any two individuals provide the same answer? (I’m sure you know the answer.)

We all want high-potentials, but I bet if I asked five individuals in your organization to describe a high-potential male or female employee I would be hard pressed to get a cohesive definitive answer. Because high-potential is subjective and subject to individual interpretation – an argument could be made that you don’t have any high-potentials only labels assigned based on who you like right now. A keen organizational observation – if I ask your sales department or business development unit who are your ideal customers and what is the demographics of a great customer? It would take less than three minutes to describe the customer down to the block and house where they reside. Organizations can easily build customer avatars, buyers persona, and archetypes – but you can’t define even core characteristics of a successful woman with leadership potential. You know everything about your customer base, but you don’t know anything about the women who work for you – Why?

Factually no one in your organization can give a clear and convincing description of a high-potential woman, or clearly articulate what a high-potential woman wants from her career, but we head out full throttle to build leadership development programs for women. Think of it this way, if you don’t attempt to know who I am how can you expect to groom me to be a leader?

Our lack of curiosity about women, our issues, strengths, and dynamics leads us to build programs based on the instinct to survive. Survivalism – by definition is the hope that when we create a disastrous program, someone will survive. Somehow there’s always one woman who survives to tell the tale – she is the only one who had the resilience to rise so we can validate our victory dance. The overall results when it comes to bolstering women into executive leadership is still pretty dismal, but we can claim victory if we move the needle by one percentage point – the story plays out, the story plot is well defined, and the victory lap paved with a false sense of accomplishment. So one woman made it or even a few, what does that say for the others left behind?

To change the narrative, we must challenge the storyline. When discussing women’s leadership development rarely do we ask profound introspective questions like, what selection biases prevents us from seeing daily contribution as we evaluate leadership potential? Right now there’s a woman sitting next to you excelling and outperforming her male counterparts, along every established benchmark, but she’s keeping their head down, and her shoulders firmly focused on the grindstone, she is not lifting her head up, and no one is telling her to stop outperforming and start making moves to advance her career. There is an expectation that women will raise their hands and say “Hi, I’m ready,” when in fact what they are saying to themselves is, “if I work harder they will see me.”

Because we cannot see individuals the way we see customers, we cannot see characteristics of contribution as a critical element of leadership development. You cannot develop who you do not know. You don’t know the women who work for you and you’ve never stopped to find out who they are, nor have you asked them what they want? How can you advance women into leadership when, for the most part, they are invisible within the dichotomy of the discussion? Maybe to change the narrative you should be asking different questions. Let’s start with one simple one – who are the women that work for us? Then develop some curiosity and listen, without comment, to what they have to say.

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