Women at Work: How to Grow Leadership

By: Roberta Matuson

Women enter the workforce with the same intelligence as men and in some cases with more education than their male counterparts. Yet women still have a ways to go when it come to achieving comparable business success.

Here are some best practices that small businesses can use to help grow leadership for women at work.

Mentoring Is Crucial
Simma Lieberman of CA-based Simma Lieberman Associates works with organizations and individuals who want to dramatically increase their profit and productivity by creating a more inclusive company culture.

Lieberman’s work often involves working side-by-side with leaders to help them build workplaces where both women and men can thrive.

Lieberman suggests that businesses look beyond the obvious to find the hidden female leaders in their workplace.

“If the company is predominantly male, leadership needs to let go of old ideas that there is only one way to lead.” She adds that the development of a strong mentoring program is vital to growing leadership. Lieberman also believes that these mentors do not have to be women.

Amy Lyons, President of Shift Communications, an integrated communications agency with offices in Boston, NYC and San Francisco, agrees with Lieberman and the need for businesses to find opportunities for mentoring, whether external or internal.

Like Lieberman, Lyons doesn’t believe gender is a factor in working with a mentor. “I’ve had both male and female mentors along the way. At different points in your career, you need different types of mentors to grow.”

Give Women Room to Lead
When coming up with a strategy to grow leadership, Lyons believes that it’s important to have a female voice either leading the discussion or being involved in the on going conversations.

“ A lot of times we make assumptions about what people need and we do so in a vacuum,” notes Lyons. “Having females involved in the conversation and asking for their feedback can help you identify where the needs are and where the holes may be. Be prepared to act on what you hear.”

Lyons goes on to say, “Sometimes there is an assumption that because we are women, we automatically default to more ‘maternal needs’ and that we default to work life balance  needs. Work-life balance isn’t a women’s issue. It’s a good business decision all around.”

Paul Silverglate, National Managing Partner-Work/Life at Deloitte, LLP couldn’t agree more.

Silverglate was the first male to be asked to participate as a national director of Deloitte’s Women’s Initiative. This role has helped him with work relationships with both his male and female clients, as well as his personal relationships. “When we look at mentorship and sponsorship, many of the mentors and sponsors are men. We want to make sure this is a business issue and not just a social cause.”

Silverglate points out that the women’s initiative isn’t buried in HR — it reports to the CEO.

“We want everything that the women’s initiative does for Deloitte to bring value to the whole organization and not just to the women in the organization. You can’t have a women’s initiative that is in a vacuum.”

Mind the Leadership Gap
At end of the day, whether it’s men or women, understanding the skill gaps in your organization is what’s needed in order to improve overall leadership.

Lyons recommends encouraging your people to not only join industry associations, but to also get involved.

“We have seen a significant return when we have entered into association memberships. Most are relatively inexpensive for individuals to join. We give our employees the encouragement to attend these events with the sole purpose of learning,” states Lyons.

Lieberman suggests that businesses provide opportunities for education — specifically classes in strategic thinking.

Lyons, Lieberman and Silverglate all note the importance of making sure your initiative isn’t just a flavor of the month activity.

“When you cultivate leadership and you have a commitment to leadership, everyone benefits,” notes Lyons. “It has to be part of your culture. Every thing you do to improve leadership must be woven into the culture and the ecosystem of the organization.”

Silverglate adds, “You have to have proactive programs and always be recognizing that ultimately we have to change the culture. You have to keep working on things to make this happen. The ultimate goal is to change the culture of the organization and it’s not going to happen from just one program. It will take time.”