A recent Forbes blog discussed how women are reluctant to seek out leadership roles, avoiding these positions in favor of safer career paths. I have witnessed this behavior in a number of situations, in each of which a very qualified woman hesitated to move forward in the same way as men. Most interesting to me us that it’s not just formal leadership roles in the corporate setting that women tend to shun, at least initially, it’s different situations where they feel they have to “put themselves out there” without adequate preparation. Men, in contrast, are very willing to jump into the fray and learn as they move ahead. Let’s look at a few cases in point.
Several years ago, I was friends with a women photography student who, by most accounts, had extraordinary talent. At the end of her certification program, she declined to declare herself a professional, citing the need to study more and find a way to apprentice to an experienced photographer. In contrast, several of the male students in her class began to accept commercial clients and built successful businesses. As they were moving forward, she remarked to me that they were not qualified to be professional photographers. Perhaps not, but they succeeded and she declined to even play.
Another very talented women that I knew well was progressing as a young consultant for a large firm. After a few years, she was promoted to Manager. Almost instantly, she fell apart, thoroughly intimidated by her new title and wondering how she could possibly be expected to manage — although no staff had yet been named as her direct reports. After a short period of time, she left the business and accepted a much less challenging retail position in another city.
A third example concerned a woman student in a prestigious executive coaching certification program in which I was also enrolled. While many in the class were assembling beginning coaching clients, anxious to try our new skills while we were still in the program, she instead kept wanting to read books about coaching, take additional assessment certification programs and do other things to learn more about coaching without actually doing it. This story has a happy ending though. One of the program faculty members and her classmates were able to convince her to take the plunge into the world of real coaching and today she is a very accomplished executive coach.
What can we learn from these stories? The answer is clear. In building its Career Development Center, a company needs to include content focused on developing leadership confidence as well as other more obvious attributes. There is a very methodical way to understand this dimension of leadership within a particular organization, breaking it down into components that can be learned. Once this is done, the building blocks to achieve it can be put in place. We owe this commitment to women of the Millenial generation for our benefit as much as theirs. If we don’t focus on it, we will fall short in our efforts to develop leaders and grow talent.
So what should women do if they work for companies that don’t take this advice? My recommendation is to work with an executive coach, making sure that the coach gets the opportunity to capture face-to-face as well as assessment-based feedback from a broad enough group of leaders within the organization so coach and client can build an effective organization-specific leadership plan for the client. The willingness of the organization to support this will be a telling measure of the organization’s real commitment to leadership development.