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Levelling the playing field

Juliette Alban-Metcalfe
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It’s hard to believe in the 21st century, but there has been a significant, recent decline in the number of women in Executive roles in FTSE 250 companies, and no progress among the FTSE 100. Address the key barrier to women in senior positions and you’ll also address the biggest performance challenges you have. Contributor Juliette Alban-Metcalf, Chief Executive – Real World Group.

These findings were highlighted in the latest update to the Cranfield University FTSE Women on Boards report, released last month[1]. The report shows that there are only 30 women in these roles in the FTSE 250 today, down from 38 last year. As a percentage, it is just 6.4 percent of Board positions overall. It’s important to remember that having fewer women in senior positions than men is closely related to the gender pay gap, given that one of the major causes of the remuneration disparity is the imbalance of men and women in the upper echelons of organisations.

Some of the reasons why perfectly effective women can often fail to progress to senior roles in organisations (and not just as far as Board level) are fairly well known, and many organisations are working to try to address them. They include company cultures that aren’t flexible or conducive to positive work-life balance, male-dominated cultures, or cultures in which they are unable to break into the ‘old boys’ network’, among other reasons. However, because of the subtlety of its existence, one of the most insidious and least addressed barriers to women’s career progression into senior roles is often unrecognised. This is the criteria for success being applied to selection and promotion.

Addressing the most insidious barrier to senior female appointments
Typically, when criteria for a role are drawn up, they are based in large part on the behaviour or leadership approach of the current incumbents. This approach seems, on the face of it, to make sense, as their approach made them successful. However, what this doesn’t consider is the fact that there may be even more successful approaches out there that will be precluded from being viewed as even adequate, given that they don’t sufficiently match the current criteria. It also fails to consider that what worked before may not work now.

It’s important to bear in mind that research shows that men and women often have different conceptions of what effective leaders do, and how leadership should be enacted. Therefore, if we assess women against typically male criteria, which is more likely to happen given that men hold by far the majority of senior positions, the chances are they won’t be able to meet these criteria. It also means that we are likely to discount their own approach as unlikely to work in the given role. Furthermore, on the occasions when an individual with different conceptions of what effective leadership is does make it past these criteria, they are likely to find that the mould they are expected to fit into will stifle their true potential and value to the organisation.

Do we need to revisit “effective” leadership entirely?
Beyond the gender issue, it is arguably essential that we revisit what we regard as the essential criteria for leaders today. Think about the last employee engagement or similar staff-attitude survey that crossed your desk. When has leadership ever not been a key issue that needs addressing? Today’s leadership cultures are, for the most part, in dire need of improvement, and it’s not necessarily the fault of leader themselves. All the evidence suggests that leadership is much more complex and challenging than it ever was, for many reasons. The world is more volatile and uncertain, it’s much more interdependent and requires leading across boundaries and without formal authority much of the time. Resources are being slashed, and yet demand for quality output, whatever the sector, keeps increasing. This means that leaders are under increased pressure, and when this is excessive, as human beings we tend to resort to a command-and-control style of management, whatever our preferred approach might be. The pace of change, and the need for innovation in every area of organisational life is greater than ever.

But let’s face it, these pressures aren’t likely to decrease anytime soon. If anything, things are going to get more challenging. So we need to lead differently. Research that we’ve been conducting for the past 17 years, including various collaborations with leading universities, has shown how leaders behave when they maximise performance (thus reducing their own job-related stress), alongside increasing wellbeing and reducing stress among their own teams. Our approach addresses both of the challenges outlined in this article. What do the most effective leaders do on a day-to-day basis in today’s more challenging environment? And how do we ensure that we are fully inclusive of both men and women (and other demographic groups) in gathering perspectives on this?

Enhancing performance and wellbeing
The Engaging Transformational Leadership model is now one of the world’s most proven leadership models. There is a wide range of published evidence demonstrating that these leadership behaviours not only predict, but if enacted deliver, improved performance.  Plus they are also strongly correlated with team members’ increased innovation, collaboration, readiness for change, self-confidence, motivation, reduced stress, achieving more with less, and many other positive factors in organisations. This has been demonstrated through unique, longitudinal research, as well as by various independent researchers worldwide. They are simple and common sense behaviours, and exactly what is needed in today’s turbulent and uncertain world.

To give you a sense of this approach, our findings demonstrate that the most effective leaders are those who are human, and willing to admit mistakes. They value others, and clearly demonstrate this through trusting them, asking their opinion, and developing and utilising their strengths. They create conditions for collaboration in building shared vision both of the ideal future state, but also how we’re going to get there. They are also prepared to take tough decisions when necessary, and at their core they are trusted because of their high levels of honestly, consistency, and integrity. None of this is rocket science, but the sluggish improvement in UK productivity figures and increasingly worrying statistics about the impact of stress and mental health issues in the workplace suggests we have lost our way. So it’s time to reassess what really works, because, aside from the compelling research evidence, most of us know this is what gets the best results from us.

Designing out bias
The Engaging Transformational Leadership model was developed using a very diverse sample of leaders. Indeed it was, and remains, unusual in that regard.[2] Still today, many leadership models that are popular have not been developed in an inclusive way, nor tested for possible adverse impact against people who are not in the majority demographic groups. This means that even when criteria developed outside the organisation are applied as some sort of unbiased, “scientific” and neutral analysis of leaders, they may well not be.

We also know from analysing the data from genuine, in-role 360 feedback ratings of white female leaders and both male and female Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) leaders that the types of leadership behaviours that are assessed by Engaging Transformational Leadership are areas in which they are often rated higher than white males by their colleagues or direct reports. This is further evidence that the behaviours being assessed are more likely to provide a level playing field for people from both majority and underrepresented groups.

Innovation in selection and promotion
Recently, we have innovated beyond 360-degree feedback to create a self-assessment tool for selection and promotion – the Performance Leader Identifier (PLI). This provides a double benefit, in that using the PLI as part of a senior recruitment or promotion process means that not only is the organisation able to assess all candidates effectively against the most relevant leadership criteria for today’s challenging world, but they are also increasing the chances that leaders from underrepresented groups will have a fair chance to demonstrate their unique talents and aptitude to lead.

The behaviours in the selection tool go beyond what is usually assessed – such as personality types that are more or less likely to make you successful as an individual, or those that could lead you to derail yourself. They enable an organisation to explore whether the individual they are considering is someone who will not only perform well, but who will maximise the potential of people around them, and thus multiply success for the organisation. And as the pioneering leadership guru, Warren Bennis, famously said, “The “soft” stuff is the hard stuff”.

Applying tools like the PLI to enable organisations to be more enlightened in the criteria that they apply in recruitment, selection and promotion will increase their chances of success. It is well overdue that we no longer seek or accept the outdated, “typical” leadership styles – whether exhibited by men or women, because they simply will no longer cut it. Updating our approach, and levelling the playing field as a by-product, will mean a much greater win for both organisations and their people.

[1] Kollewe, J. (2018) Number of women in top Boardroom positions falls, says report, The Guardian, 17 July


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