"Leaning In" Isn't Enough

I've been delighted as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook has taken public stances on the issue of women's advancement. I look forward to the release of her book Lean In. Her advice to women to "lean in" is important - especially for women who aren't already acting on their ambitions. But research tells us that this isn't advice for all women! It's generally advice for women who are on their way to middle management positions or who are already in middle management, but timid about their ambitions.

What about women who are already in the middle, who aspire to senior positions and believe they are doing all it takes to get there? The advice to "lean in" has limited value to them, but these 4 interventions will enable them to create a career that soars
1. Ensure that Women Develop Business, Strategic and Financial Acumen: We call this set of competencies "The Missing 33%™" because they represent the most important third of leadership excellence. As a matter of fact, our research into what directors look for in C-suite candidates and executives look for in high potential candidates indicate that business, strategic and financial acumen account for 50% of the criteria! Women need these messages!
2. Eliminate Gender Bias in HR Systems: Most companies' talent development and performance management systems over-emphasize interpersonal skills or personal greatness and under-emphasize the importance of business, strategic and financial acumen. Absent formal messaging about these executive-critical competencies AND the lack of mentoring that women get about them, women are left scratching our heads about why our excellent interpersonal and team skills aren't enough to get us to the top.
3. Address Gender Dynamics: Managers who make talent decisions about succession and promotions into senior management hold assumptions about women and men, careers and leadership and many of these assumptions disadvantage women. As a matter of fact, research by McKinsey finds:
“Of all the forces that hold women back, none are as powerful as entrenched beliefs.

While companies have worked hard to eliminate overt discrimination, women still face the pernicious force of mindsets that limit opportunity…”
4. Focus on Competencies for Executives: In an earlier blog I wrote,
"Traditional advice lays a strong foundation for career success, but it will only take women so far. Take a look and you'll notice that most traditional advice is focused on helping women move from career-start to middle management.


Career-Start to Middle
Middle to Senior/Exec
Learn to self-promote

Learn to speak up, be more assertive

Become more confident

Set ambitious goals, don’t leave before you leave

Get a mentor

Learn to network

Enhance your personal brand

Develop executive presence

Ask!, and negotiate more effectively

Have an elevator pitch


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Women who are already "leaning in" need more advice about how to move from the middle into senior positions and what they have received has been woefully inadequate. (For more on what this advice looks like, email us.)

So, Sheryl we wish you all the best with your "Lean-In Circles" - they will play an important role in keeping the pipeline of talent full of women. At the same time, we hope that organizations that truly care about women's advancement make them only one part of a more comprehensive strategy to ensure that top talent is developed! 

Lead ON!
Susan Colantuono, CEO and Founder Leading Women
Author of No Ceiling, No Walls and Make the Most of Mentoring. Underway is her new book, Network! What corporate women need to know about strategic relationships and success
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