Beyond Lean In

By Margery Weinstein

The vision of a corporate boardroom table filled with equal parts men and women, or maybe even dominated by women, has mostly not been realized to date. According to the Center for American Progress, while women hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, American women still lag behind men in representation in leadership positions. Women are only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

Some consultants and companies recommend taking a proactive approach, rather than just sitting back and hoping these numbers change. Leadership programs that focus on advancing women employees, creating internal support networks, and establishing a culture that values the contributions of all employees, including women, are a few of the reasons more women soon may find themselves at the top.

 Learning How Best to Add Value

A common frustration among women employees is that despite their hard, successful work, they’re not noticed. Or when they are noticed, they are not given promotions or development opportunities. “We hear from the women in our programs, who are high potential and seen by their organization as ready for promotion, that they are frustrated that their hard work seems insufficient for their career advancement,” says Rosina Racioppi, CEO and president of consultancy Women Unlimited, Inc. “It is true that individuals who seek to advance need to do good work. It is important to understand that doing good work (or great work, for that matter) just gets you in the game. If you wish to advance, you need to play the game, which means understanding how your work, or skills, adds value to the team, company, or customer.”

Racioppi says companies may need to be clearer in outlining their expectations for each job role, so that it is clearer what all employees, including women, need to do to achieve a promotion, or be eligible for greater responsibilities. At the same time, it helps for companies to think about how ads for job roles are worded, and whether the open positions inside the company are sending a subtle message that male employees would be preferred.

“There may be elements of the organization’s culture that create unintended barriers for women to advance,” Racioppi explains. “Some examples can be found in job descriptions when the requirements are written in more masculine terms and descriptors, providing a subtle bias against female candidates.”

Women may need to “lean in,” as Sheryl Sandberg famously advises in her book by that title, but companies also need to meet women halfway. Leaning in won’t do you any good if those with the opportunities to unlock are unreceptive to women’s efforts. “While the book provides a strong message, it gives the false impression that if a woman just leans in, she will accomplish her goals. But how do you lean in so you don’t fall over?” says Racioppi. “I have seen women ‘leaning in’ in a strong, aggressive manner that did not bode well for their career. Yes, you need to lean in, but you need to do so a way that is received positively by the organization’s decision-makers.”

She emphasizes the importance of developing women to tailor their efforts to the specific expectations and needs of their organization. “In the programs we offer, we help women assess their skills to create a development strategy supporting their career goals in their organization. It is important to understand your unique organizational context, the leadership traits that are needed for the organization’s success, and how the women’s skills meet those needs.”

“In understanding what their company values are, it’s important that women receive regular feedback that lets them know if their aims are matching with the messages they are sending to co-workers and managers,” adds John Futterknecht, president and co-founder at Optimum Associates, which recently launched a Women’s Training Program. “Probably the challenge with the biggest implications (and least talked about) is understanding power dynamics within the organization and being able to leverage power,” says Futterknecht. “Even the most progressive companies experience conflict over whether, how, and when women should exercise authority. The reality is men and women are perceived differently and have different attitudes when it comes to power and toughness.”

Futterknecht says his company’s new program is designed to help women: navigate company power dynamics; effectively promote themselves strategically; project confidence and executive presence; and take care of themselves at work and at home. These are all critical areas to help women leaders achieve their potential and advance their careers.

Learning and Human Resource professionals also can help to address these needs in their own companies, says Futterknecht, who recommends organizations:

  • Create internal mentoring and/or sponsorship programs involving senior women leaders within the organization.
  • Ensure women are obtaining constant feedback about their “buzz” and development opportunities.
  • Form support groups where women can share experiences and successes.
  • Implement training programs focused on women’s leadership, and offering individual coaching when necessary.
  • Review Biases

Men and women sometimes are not reviewed on the same basis, says Carol Vallone Mitchell, Ph.D., author of “Breaking Through ‘Bitch’: How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly,” and co-founder of Talent Strategy Partners. “Companies can check the performance reviews women and men receive from their managers. These reviews can play right into stereotype biases. Research for by linguist Kieran Snyder has indicated that 76 percent of critical feedback given to women was personality-related, comments such as ‘abrasive,’ ‘judgmental,’ ‘strident,’” says Mitchell. “Only 2 percent of men’s critical feedback included negative personality comments.”

Mitchell adds that research by Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research indicated that, “compared with men, women receive only half as much performance feedback about their vision and their technical expertise. They receive only a third as much feedback linked to a business outcome.”

Finding Mentors

Sometimes a high-potential woman leader can be supported to greatness by having a role model who shows her what is possible. Marcy Klevorn, vice president and chief information officer at Ford Motor Company found that having a mentor was a great help in her career progress. “For women in certain areas, such as the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers in which not as many women work, an additional challenge is that it is harder to ‘see yourself ’ in the people around you and realize that there are people just like you with similar support systems and networks who are managing,” she says.

That’s why the company’s mentoring program proved so valuable to Klevorn. The mentor did not work in the same area of the company as she did, but, she says, that wasn’t as important as you might think. “She listened to situations I was facing and gave me tools to consider using. And it ended up being helpful that she was not in my same field because she could look at the situation from another perspective,” Klevorn says. “I am grateful the company provided that mentoring.”

Today, Ford has an internal network especially devoted to women’s success, the Professional Women’s Network (PWN), for which Klevorn serves as the executive sponsor. PWN, one of several internal networking groups at Ford known as Employee Resource Groups, focuses on professional development for women, promoting an environment that attracts, develops, and retains women employees and customers. Every year, the group sponsors motivational speakers, mentoring programs, leadership initiatives, and community projects, and works on bringing together Ford’s female employees from around the world. In May 2014, PWN sponsored Sheryl Sandberg’s visit to Ford, where she presented a sold-out keynote for employees and spent time with the PWN leadership team. “This is an example of the types of activities PWN sponsors that play a strong role in mentoring and supporting women throughout the company globally,” says Klevorn.

Indeed, mentoring can be among the best help you can give women at your company. “Mentoring and sponsorship are essential leadership skills that often are overlooked, particularly for women. More women and men need to hone their mentorship skills and actively take on female mentors,” says Priti Shah, one of the leaders behind learning company Skillsoft’s Women in Action leadership development program. “Then, women need to seek out these mentors and sponsors to develop them and encourage them to take on challenges they likely never would have been offered.”

Recognize Differences in Learning Styles

Just as all people differ in how they learn, there is now evidence that men and women overall tend to learn in different ways, says Terena Bell, founder/CEO of TVRunway. “It’s important to acknowledge that women tend to learn differently from men. There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large, women tend to learn verbally and visually, whereas men are more likely to have a kinetic learning style. Women also think from a relational standpoint,” she says. “We look across multiple subject areas at once to find a solution, and tend to operate in analogies and stories more than men. So allow time in your training for questions and discussion groups. And allow more time than you think you’ll need. The women are going to want to get to know each other a little before working together, so you’ll need that extra time.”

In addition to differences in learning styles, women in corporations often find themselves challenged differently when communicating, says Caroline March-Long, vice president of Sales and Marketing at learning company Scitent. “The greatest challenge for women is avoiding the fear, or hesitation, to speak up and be forceful, in a respectful way, about what they believe is right for the company,” she notes. “We’ve had situations in which we felt that some of our women leaders needed some extra coaching on communication, finding their voice, and encouraging them to ‘speak up’ in a way that they will be heard and command respect. This can involve internal coaching, but we also have asked outside coaches to work with women within our company to help them tap into, and bring out, their strong voices.”


  • Be clear in outlining expectations for each job role, so that it is clearer what all employees, including women, need to do to achieve a promotion or be eligible for greater responsibilities.
  • Train women to tailor their efforts to the specific expectations and needs of their organization.
  • Give women feedback that lets them know if their aims are matching with the messages they are sending to co-workers and managers.
  • Create internal mentoring and/or sponsorship programs involving senior women leaders within the organization.
  • Check the performance reviews that women and men receive from their managers to make sure they are being judged on the same basis.
  • Offer women communication encouragement, and, if needed, training to be more vocal.

Reprinted from TRAINING magazine 

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