More and more leaders are reaching the conclusion that they need to disrupt old thinking patterns to achieve business success. For example, an executive recently left a board meeting and said much of the conversation across the table was about an “underlying force” that organizations worldwide are experiencing in relation to how leaders operate. This force was causing a growing number of companies to rethink their approach to everything from increased competition, planning and decision-making to employee engagement and culture change. The executive shared that an important goal for his company after that meeting was to find ways to put some real muscle around disrupting their old leadership model. The type of thinking that facilitated the organization’s past success was no longer working in today’s environment, according to all business indicators.
This executive also realized that the same players had been on their leadership team for some time, a strategy that was failing to incorporate a wider range of cognitive diversity. He said that part of what he had realized was, “If we have one type of leader – whether all women or all men – we will be limiting ourselves by only recognizing a narrow slice of the world. That unilateral type of thinking can’t mirror the new challenges we are experiencing in the marketplace and the rich exchange of diverse perspectives that ultimately drive greater levels of innovation and bottom-line performance.”
Then, the executive said that he understood now that for the company to survive, it needed to become serious about balancing the thinking on the executive and leadership teams. He emphasized that one of the obvious gaps was the current lack of gender balance, yet he still looked perplexed as he posed the following question: “While we have a strong message around diversity and inclusion and have provided numerous women’s network forums and training, I look around and I just don’t see the diversity in the executive suite hallways or in briefings from our top leadership. What is the solution?”
There are a few things that still hold many organizations back in this arena, and the problems go beyond simply pinpointing “male gender bias” as the culprit. One challenge is that even though many companies support the general idea of moving more women into executive roles, many leaders continue to believe this is a “women’s issue” rather than one that affects the entire business. What’s more, after coaching many female business leaders and examining organizational cultures, it’s clear that the barriers to achieving gender-balanced leadership are more deeply rooted and persistent than leaders want to believe. Outdated thinking patterns and corporate narratives are partially to blame.
When leadership teams fail to address these realities by disrupting the conversation and reframing the narrative, the result is that we often remain glued to the same “sticky floors.” If companies continue to tackle challenges the same way they always have, even when it’s clearly not working, then they’ll never achieve the ROI that they should, even when they invest in diversity training and initiatives.
Here are four ideas for creating greater gender balance at the leadership level:
1. Treat gender balance as a leadership priority.
Some organizations approach inclusion as the latest trend or a “check the box” for HR. Instead, there should be a shift to focus on how the entire company can draw on diverse thinking styles to improve business performance. This shift shouldn’t take much of a leap, since there is already a solid business case for cognitive diversity. When people approach problem-solving with unique perspectives rather than having all executives mirror an identical leadership style, then teams can improve collaboration while better reflecting the customer base and marketplace conditions.
The key here is to change the narrative to be more about gender balance than about women. Leaders also should strengthen their shift in focus by setting goals and sharing progress reports on gender balance so that they start to view it as an important part of retention, talent development and succession plans.
2. Use language more carefully.
It’s easy for leaders to inadvertently use words that reinforce gender-based categorizations. Whether we say that men have better leadership skills or that women’s unique strengths are better than men’s, neither comparison is productive. A more effective approach is to clearly identify and define the specific leadership skills – as well as the culture – that facilitate organizational success.
Ideally, the skill set that you highlight should reflect a mix of capabilities that contributes to a well-rounded leadership profile – without assigning a specific gender to those skills. Be inclusive in your language and identify what women and men can achieve together rather than harping on gender differences.
3. Rework or replace stale leadership models.
Today’s organizations are both flatter and less hierarchal, and thus benefit from a wider spectrum of leadership skills and approaches. For decades, women have had a turn in trying to adapt to a traditional male leadership model. It’s now important for men to also learn how to embrace valuable leadership attributes that may be a stretch for them. By encouraging a combination of leadership models that executives of both genders can successfully adopt, leadership teams can work toward a genderless model of organizational success.
4. Include men in the conversation.
It’s critical for executive teams to recognize that gender-balanced leadership is not a women’s issue – it’s everyone’s issue. Siloed discussions and events that keep men and women in separate conversations won’t move organizations in the direction they need to go. Intentionally promote dialogue between women and men to avoid missing out on the opportunity for cross-networking. Remember: It’s important that initiatives intended to address gender balance be gender-balanced! It is only by talking together than we can create a truly unified voice for leadership.