We have been interviewing board level men and a few women on what they think will drive gender balance forward for a new client. In several meetings we heard men claim they ‘are all for balance; but the women they know aren’t ready for leadership’. Later, we met another senior leader who exasperatedly said: ‘I see my colleagues take chances on younger men who are perhaps still a bit green. But when they look at female candidates as part of succession planning, they will say ‘she’s just not ready’.
It begs the question: what does ‘ready’ look like? Or perhaps more to the point: what makes a middle management man any ‘more ready’ than his equally qualified female colleague? What are we really talking about when we discuss ‘readiness’.
Too frequently ‘ready’ is code for ‘looked like me when I was ready for the step-up’. I want to be very clear; this is not solely a male phenomenon and not necessarily ‘looked like me’ from a physical standpoint. To be sure, it is a human trait to create alliances with those we presume will be like us based on external cues such as race, age, gender, even weight. However, in our experience at the InclusIQ Institute, ‘looked like me’ in many global corporates also means traits such as extroversion, eagerness to network and an outspoken desire for more power and seniority.
“Outspoken women are often derided by both men and other women as being pushy and not great ‘leadership role models’. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
These are the traits we reward in a Western workplace; but they’re also the traits women are less likely to demonstrate. Women are less socialised to claim credit for work done by a group (almost all work in organisations) or to be verbally outspoken about their skills. Outspoken women are often derided by both men and other women as being pushy and not great ‘leadership role models’. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we routinely meet women whose bosses claim didn’t know they wanted to be considered for the next big role. When we talk with the women they could scream with frustration: ‘How can my boss not know? I frequently ask for feedback and deliver all my objectives and beyond! How else should I prove I’m ready?’
The Nordic Mindset
In Norway before the quotas were introduced, companies were forced to go ‘pearl diving’. When quotas were imminent, leaders could no longer just say ‘she’s not ready’ and move on to the next candidate. Board members had to identify what it would take to get her ‘ready’ and turn that into tangible actions. Because we are largely on target for meeting Lord Davies’ targets for 25% female representation on UK FTSE#100 boards, the UK government is not likely to introduce quotas.
You can still develop a more proactive ‘Nordic’ mindset. Imagine you are in your next meeting where promotions and succession planning are on the table. When discussing who is ready for the next level, take three proactive steps:
- If you are dismissing an applicant others like because you don’t think they are ‘ready’, ask yourself: ‘What exactly does ‘ready’ mean to me?’ followed by: ‘How could I personally help them become more ready within the next few months?’ Identify the skills or technical expertise you think they need and make a personal commitment to helping them get that exposure.
- If a colleague dismisses a candidate with the old ‘not ready yet’ chestnut, ask them: ‘What do you think she still lacks?’ and ‘How could she get that experience in short order? A bigger question for debate is: ‘What is ‘readiness’ code for in our organisation?’ For example, if you only want to promote people who have had a certain number of years’ operational experience or have lived in a foreign market, debate its real utility, agree whether it is a genuine requirement and then become more transparent about it to candidates in the pipeline. It helps to identify and debate what ‘ready’ really means.
- Use discussion in the leadership group to question why you’ve collectively made the choices you have in the past. Why have you voted to promote or hire previously - how did you and your colleagues know candidates were ‘ready’? Was it the amount of revenue they brought in or the types of relationships they cultivated with senior advocates?
It will take courageous conversations and becoming honest about what has worked for those promoted in the past to help you understand what’s really holding back others with true potential.