The Business-Savvy Barrier™

I can't reveal all the details of our research, but here's a peek. In countries all around the world, 90% of focus groups of men identified “lack of mentoring on business, strategic and financial acumen” as one of the top 3 barriers to women’s advancement. I call this The Business-Savvy Barrier.

Fewer than 10% of the focus groups of women recognize this barrier.

This is not surprising given the advice that women receive week in and week out. Much of it is advice that we’ve heard for decades, yet hasn’t made a difference in the rate of women’s advancement. To get an idea of what this advice entails, here’s a sampling of last week’s advice:

1.     Women need to push back.[1] Important advice from Selena Rezvani’s new book, Pushback on the importance of negotiation and communication skills.
2.     A collection of advice from banking leaders. For example, “Tell young bankers that one of the most important points is that you need to listen to others.” Again, important advice focused on ways to engage others.[2]
3.     Get in the game.[3] Rosemary Turner, president of the Chesapeake district for UPS told an audience about the importance of negotiation, not taking things personally and getting the job done. Important? Yes, but no mention of the difference between doing the job and relating performance to outcomes.
4.     5 tips from Selena Rezvani.[4] Selena, herself, spoke last week and shared 5 helpful tips – 2 of which had to do with managing interpersonal relationships and 3 were career navigation strategies.
5.     Honor the feminine in yourself as a new path to leadership.[5] I can’t tell you how sick I am of this meme! It’s been around since the 70s and (while there’s important truth at its core) after 40 years, you’d think the fact that it’s not that helpful would be obvious.
6.     Set your expectations higher. [6] Great and motivating guidance, but no mention of what it really takes to achieve those high expectations.
7.     Don’t be a “bitch in the boardroom.”[7] More advice about how it is that we can “all just get along.”

Not one of these articles addresses The Business-Savvy Barrier. And last week isn’t exceptional. Aside from articles I’ve written, I’ve never seen one hit this barrier (which I also call The Missing 33%™ or The Secret 33%™) head on. (Although, I have seen one video of a Fortune 500 woman CEO address it directly.)

The one bright spot last week was a short paragraph in Marie Claire’s interview with Sallie Krawcheck.
“[Women] have about 15 percent of the senior roles in corporate America — as CEOs, on executive committees, on boards. On Wall Street, that's a low single digit. We are significantly underrepresented there. But if you look around Wall Street and corporate America, we're putting women on diversity councils; we're putting them in mentoring programs; we're giving them special leadership training, telling them how to ask for promotions — but we are not promoting them. My goodness, we're just making women busier. There needs to be a rethink about how to make them successful in these organizations.”[8]

We do need a rethink. We don’t need to make women busier with the same old advice. We don’t need diversity councils, mentoring programs or leadership programs that double down on interpersonal skills (skills where women are consistently rated as outperforming men). We need to help women become more business savvy - skills where men are consistently rated as outperforming women!

Want to leap over The Business-Savvy Barrier? Here are 4 tips that will keep you from wasteful busy-ness and prepare you to leap:

1.     Learn the business of your business. You might think that if you’re doing your job, you’re doing enough. You’re not. Rather than being busy with superfluous activities, get busy learning how your business works, how what you do drives its strategy, how to speak about your results using the language of outcomes. If you don’t understand this advice, buy a copy of No Ceiling, No Walls. It will all become clear.
2.     No matter your level, step back for the big picture. You can only do #1 if you understand the big picture of your business.  As Ram Charan so rightly says, “It isn’t necessary that you be a CEO to seek the big picture. While CEOs and business unit leaders need to see the external patterns to position the business, other leaders need this know-how, too, for instance, for HR to do talent planning, for operations to choose plant locations, and for R&D to find new sources of information.”
3.     Get a big slice of PIE mentoring. Wondering now to step back and get the big picture? Wondering what’s an efficient way to learn the business of your business? A great way is to get a slice of PIE mentoring. Very briefly, PIE mentoring is mentoring on the Performance of the business, your Image as a leader and Exposure to how decisions are made at different levels and in different parts of the business. To learn more about PIE mentoring (and why it’s so different from CAKE!), pick up a copy of Make theMost of Mentoring.
4.     No matter your level, act like you own the business. This is one way of demonstrating that you are business savvy and it’s easy to do if you have the big picture. Every decision you make – whether it’s a major strategic decision, an important people decision or a small resource decision – should be made from the perspective of a CEO or business owner. In other words, be for the business. Promote it as if it were your own, think about improving it as if it were your own and guard its resources as if they were your own.

The Marie Claire interviewer followed Sallie’s statement about rethinking how to make women more successful, not with a question about ways to do that, but with this question, What should a woman working on Wall Street wear? I was happy that Sallie answered “You’re kidding me!”

Kudos to Sallie! If a woman dresses for success, she’ll make a good first impression, but if when she opens her mouth she can’t speak The Language of Power™ (which is the language of business outcomes), that positive first impression will fade away. On the other hand, if a woman is presentable and can speak The Language of Power, any poor first impression will fade away in an onslaught of impressive contributions. Which leads to our 5th tip:

5.     Learn to speak The Language of Power. When you self-promote with a focus on contributions to the business you’re able to do what we call “self-promote with grace and authenticity.” Why? Because you aren’t putting yourself above anyone else, you’re putting the organization ahead of everything else and demonstrating what Jim Collins refers to in Good to Great as that “paradoxical blend of personal humility and intense professional will.”

Lead ON!
Susan Colantuono is CEO of Leading Women and author of No Ceiling, No Walls and Make the Most of Mentoring.
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