Better Support for Female Leaders in Transition

Female executives face more and varied challenges than their male counterparts across their career progress. Based on what we know about some of these challenges, how can organisations better support their leadership transitions?

It is suggested that female leaders, compared to male leaders, are:

  • less likely to talk about their achievements
  • less likely to associate success with their individual actions but rather with their team’s efforts
  • less likely to claim responsibility for things that have gone well
  • less likely to assign their involvement as a key part of any success
  • less likely to apply for roles or promotions unless they feel that they meet all the required criteria.

Many also believe that female leaders are more impacted by the imposter syndrome – the feeling that they are not ready or capable for the new role and at some point, people are going to catch them out.

Consistent to some of these aspects, in my research female leaders gave themselves a lower assessment of productivity or effectiveness during the transition period than male leaders. In other words, when asked how productive or effective they felt they were after 3 and 6 months in a new leadership role, they consistently scored themselves lower than the male leaders’ self-assessment. When female participants (HR and direct managers) were asked to comment on leaders they had observed, the problem got worse. They increased the male’s effectiveness and lowered the female’s rating.

Female leaders were also half as likely as male leaders to rate their direct manager as a promoter of their transition success. This is an interesting outcome considering some of the commentary around a lack of female support of female leaders. Is it really the case that we are not supporting female leaders in new roles as much as we support their male counterparts?

On a positive note, female leaders were twice as likely as male leaders to use a transition plan, which emerged as a strong promoter of transition success in all leaders due to the clarity and confidence it generated.

If we believe that female leaders are more likely to come into the role underestimating their ability to successfully do the role, more likely to see gaps on the role description as significant limiting factors, more likely to associate success with their team, more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, less likely to feel that their direct manager is helping to make their transition successful, and will be harder on themselves in terms of their transition score – surely then we need to build scaffolding around them to help prevent them from derailing or failing during their transition.

Here are four things organisations could adopt to improve the transition support they provide to their female leaders and executives:

1. Not meeting all of the selection criteria

If we recognize that female leaders are potentially coming into the role concerned about aspects of the role description where they rate themselves less than 10 out of 10, one suggestion is to encourage early conversations and ‘call out’ the gaps. Be realistic that they are not expected to have everything in hand to start and discuss personal development opportunities to plug any of the real versus perceived gaps. The message could be – “we don’t expect you to have everything on the list, we know this will be a growth opportunity for you which we are very happy to support. You tick the core boxes; we are excited about what you bring and look forward to working with you to round out the list. Relax about what you can’t do right now and focus on learning the organisation / role / people”.

2. Not talking about their achievements or role in the achievements of their team

Knowing this early we can create platforms and a safe environment for female leaders-in-transition to openly talk about their past achievements, what they did to get to this point and why they are proud of their role in those achievements. This helps to establish conditions for fairer recognition of work balanced with praising the team. As part of the onboarding process, facilitate a series of discussions where the leader and their entire team are encouraged to talk about proud achievements, noting both the teams work and their own contribution. Try to continue the process as the new leader starts to deliver / achieve.

3. Suffering with the Imposter Syndrome

I am yet to meet a leader-in-transition who doesn’t feel like an imposter at one time or another during their transition, even if it is only briefly. One simple way to help is to call it out – raise it even if they haven’t. Say, “it is common for leaders to experience this during a transition into a new role”. Or better still share your own experience. Once leaders know it is common, they are better placed to deal with that particular voice playing havoc in their own heads.

4. Feeling a lack of support from their direct manager

Whilst this is clearly not always the case, if we know that it is even a little likely then we should raise it with the direct manager before the new female leader starts, not as a reflection on the direct manager but as a potential blind spot. We should then help the manager to structure the onboarding to ensure that there is suitable support. Create a check-in loop, ideally with a third party, to ensure that the expectations of the new female leader are delivered.

One of the reasons many organization’s onboarding programs do not meet the expectations of their leaders-in-transition is that, as with many senior executive development, one size does not fit all. Onboarding needs to be bespoke, or at least tailored to the individual and role. This includes allowing for gender and other differences. Doing so will generate significant benefits and will help in the attraction, success and retention of female executives. You have worked so hard to attract these leaders – set them up to succeed.

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