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Coaching Women Leaders to Succeed in Business

Last week, I was invited to participate in a discussion about coaching women leaders to succeed in business. The panel was hosted by the NYC Chapter of the International Coach Federation and New York University.

I’d like to share some thoughts from the event that may be helpful to coaches, as well as women leaders and the male executives who want to support them.

Where I’m Coming From

In over fifteen years of coaching, I have yet to find a workplace challenge that was exclusively “male” or “female.” Rather, the catalog of challenges I have dealt with fall under the title of human experience. I believe that the world doesn’t sort and present us with problems according to gender. Issues are issues. Over the long term, successful people deal with them; unsuccessful people don’t. What we might acknowledge are the differences in how problems are perceived, received and dealt with.

I’d like to think that 1) I am fairly immune from bias and 2) I diligently try to stay away from bias topics unless clients mention them. In reality, each us of has a prejudice that we bring to the conversation. Being open and curious about how bias shows up for ourselves and for others can help create a neutral work zone where people are celebrated, first and foremost, for talent.

In “Warrior for the Human Spirit,” Margaret Wheatley identifies insight and compassion as primary tools to develop leaders. As coaches, we can certainly help executives understand their role within a system (insight). We can nurture their emotional responses (compassion). Through these tools, we help leaders rise above their challenges, which is the truest and most noble work that we, as coaches, can do.

What I Have Learned

Competent Versus Likeable.

In the workplace, women can often feel that they must trade off being competent with being likeable. This is an impossible standard. And, it’s not the only one. Deborah Sparr’s “Wonder Women” highlights how women have been fed the message that they can “have it all,” since the 1980s. The truth is, nobody can have it all. And being unable to do so, doesn’t make anyone any less worthy. Not women. Not men.

When it comes to likeability, I encourage my clients to consider a politician-like approach. Both male and female politicians understand that a third of people will like them because of their gender, race, background, opinions, accent, outlook, etc. while a third of people will dislike them for exactly the same reasons. Often, we waste time simply being comfortable with people who already like us. Or, trying to convince those people that might never come around, to do so. If we focus on a “floating majority,” the middle third of people who we may persuade to see us in a different light, we can form a working majority that will allow us to succeed.

Work/Life Integration May be Easier than We Think.

In a recent study of successful women, Laura VanderKam reviewed weekly plans of women earning $100K+ who were also mothers. In her book, “I Know How She Does It,” she pointed out that if one sleeps fifty hours a week and works fifty hours a week, over sixty hours a week are left for “life.”

Expectations have increased about how much time women and men should spend with their families, creating another impossible set of standards. But what may help ease the pressure, is recognizing that we have more flexibility than we think. Over the course of a week, we actually do have plenty of “life” time, even if it happens on evenings or weekends.

Ballast or Fuel? It’s Your Choice.

Bosses, peers, friends, family members, and even coaches say stupid sh*t! It’s a part of the human experience. But allowing words to bring you down like ballast or to fire you up like fuel, is a choice. Over time, the most successful people use other people’s limiting words to motivate them to be even better.

Take Time for Feelings.

As an action-oriented coach, I used to encourage female clients faced with a difficult issue to identify their underlying emotion and then to turn it into action. But thankfully, one of my female clients told me exactly what she needed: for me to affirm her feelings and then help her articulate them, so that she’d be able to reduce the power they had over her. Now, I leave more space to work through a client’s feelings.

The Future is Not Female.

It’s not male either. It’s a blend of both, combined with non-human intelligence, that will bring out the best in all of us. We will have to work together to succeed.

Systemic Bias is Real.

Center for Creative Leadership research reveals that only 5% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. Although we are seeing more diversity in the board room, the Chairman (hopefully “Chairperson” soon) and CEO roles are still reverting to the same old faces.

Systemic bias inhibits half the population from demonstrating their talents. Because of bias, many women are checking out before their careers have a chance to flourish. Two generations on from the female emancipation movement, it’s time for a systemic change.

What Should We Do?

Kill the Queen Bee. In the 1970s, senior female executives who treated rising female executives badly were labelled with Queen Bee Syndrome. The narrative that women are not helpful to each other still exists. Let’s kill it.

Find a Mentor/Be a Mentor. Recent Harvard Business Review research suggests that women who support other women have richer relationships and perform better at work. Mentor/mentee relationships that include men can help, too. Mentoring, supporting and encouraging each other over a career is critical for success.

The Power of a Network. In my work with women leaders, I have observed that they can often be reluctant to use their network. But, being intentional about building and maintaining a network of people helps move women forward. This may include engaging like-minded men as allies.

Be an Insider. When my clients feel like outsiders, I encourage them to examine how they show up. Many learnings can be found in this rich soil.

Support Disconnection with Connection. We often ignore the idea that others feel disconnected, underappreciated or undervalued, just as much as we do. Connecting and supporting others who have similar thoughts or feelings can increase individual and team performance, as well as morale.

Ignore the Noise. Even if they don’t feel completely ready, we can encourage women to be bolder. To step into the conversation. To take the job. To “build the bridge as they are walking on it.” To find their voice. To ignore the noise. To go for it.

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