Don't Grow Complacent - HBR Report Is Not As Good as it Seems!

While I was in Guatemala for our Leadership in Action program many of you sent me links to the Harvard Business Review blog asking: Are Women Better Leaders than Men? The authors' assertions are that in an analysis of their 360 feedback reports of over 7000 managers, women were rated as outperforming men in nearly all of them - actually 12 out of 16. BUT hold on a minute! There are 2 major failings in their research.

Let's use my definition of leadership to analyze the competencies they measure. "Leadership is using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness in others." And note that our research indicates that when directors executives talk about the desirable skills for C-suite candidates and high potentials, 50% of the skills relate to achieving outcomes. These include skills related to business, strategic and financial acumen.

Here's how the reported competencies in the Folkman/Zenger study array.
  • Use the greatness in you: about 5/16
  • Achieve outcomes: about 5/16 (We were generous here! It could have been fewer.)
  • Engage others: about 6/16
As with nearly all the competency models we've analyzed, we see a disproportionate lack of emphasis on business, strategic and financial acumen (31%).

Another limitation of their research is that they aggregated the feedback from each manager's boss, peers and direct reports. This does nothing to explain why (as I've asked for years) if women are so good, why are so few of us at the top. Peers and direct reports have a limited impact on a manager's advancement. It's the opinion of the boss and others above the manager that weigh heavily an advancement decisions.

Given these concerns, here is the comment I left:
In the final analysis, advancement depends heavily on the perceptions of a candidate's boss and other higher level managers - especially perceptions about key business, strategic and financial skills. Both the importance of business, strategic and financial acumen and the impact of the boss appear to be understated. The the feedback of boss, peers and direct reports has been rolled together (or so the blog implies). Also, there is a significant under-representation of business, strategic and financial skills.

We'd be interested in knowing how the stats look if you report only the perceptions of people ABOVE the rated managers. There have been many studies where men and women are rated as fairly equal UNTIL the researchers examined only the boss' perceptions.

And what do you find on skills related to what we call The Missing 33%™?  Or, as our research indicates, are key business, strategic and financial skills under-measured in the evals. We've found that this is a significant pattern in Fortune 500 companies and accounts for a serious embedded gender bias that disadvantages women.
Don't be fooled by their report. Don't become complacent. You can't afford to believe that what companies measure formally is what helps women progress. And you can't believe that because studies like these show that women are perceived as "better leaders than men" those perceptions will serve to buoy your career.

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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