A 2015 study from Pew Research Center found that the majority of the American public agrees that women are as capable and qualified for corporate leadership as men are. Pew reports that “most Americans find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, with many saying they’re stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders.”
But as we all know, at the end of the day, that vote of confidence hasn’t resulted in gender equality in top leadership positions. There’s no need to restate the numbers; if you need a refresher, my recent post on growing momentum globally for gender quotas tells some of the story.
At SHAMBAUGH, our goal is to provide solutions rather than to dwell on why these challenges relating to women’s leadership aren’t progressing quickly enough. To that end, here is a summary of three top capabilities that women need to thrive as leaders, based on a recent McKinsey study of 250 high-ranking female executives and validated by SHAMBAUGH’s own research:
Resilience. While there is no specific set of predictors for successful leaders as noted in my recent book Make Room for Her, that are certain attributes that you can develop to help you thrive and climb to the upper echelon. In McKinsey’s interviews, they found that resilience was one of the attributes that senior-level women identified as key to their corporate success. Resilience is the ability to be tough enough to bounce back and recover quickly from challenging setbacks—something that every successful leader must learn how to master. McKinsey’s study found that “perseverance through challenging circumstances can shape a woman’s ability to lead.”
Many of my executive clients—male and female—have shared experiences with me in which a crisis or failure on the job later morphed into a career turning point, leading to an upward trajectory in their role and improved confidence about their ability to weather difficulties. I can relate to the importance of resilience personally as well, as I shared recently in an article in Harvard Business Review. In my first job out of college, I was the first and only woman to work on the manufacturing floor at General Motors. I experienced a number of challenges that were completely unrelated to my job as a production manager, including having parts sabotaged that were coming down the assembly line to me, someone setting a fire in my wastebasket, and then the GM asking me to take notes at my first management meeting. It was resilience that helped me rise above such challenges and succeed in my job anyway, paving the way for later becoming a senior executive—at GM and other companies.
Grit. If resilience is a form of toughness, grit is its sister trait that reflects courage, resolve, and character. Once you’ve used your resilience to get back up after “falling down” in a business setting, grit is the characteristic that leaders use to push through the walls to the other side of a perceived failure. Grit was another quality that the high-ranking execs in McKinsey’s study called out as a crucial leadership skill for women to build. In fact, female leaders indicated that both resilience and grit were more important to their own success than a “results orientation” and other more obvious factors one might have expected to top the list.
I can share another personal story about grit from early in my career, when I was asked to take on a new corporate role that my experience suggested I wasn’t qualified to do yet. Because it felt like such a big stretch in terms of responsibility, I worried about failing and almost didn’t take it. Fortunately, a male colleague encouraged me to take a leap of faith and accept the position, even if I wouldn’t know everything from the get-go. While I certainly made some mistakes along the way, having the grit to push through my discomfort with accepting a job for which I was underqualified led to my gaining the visibility I needed to be offered a senior-level role just one year later.
Confidence. Research has shown that there is a “confidence gap” between men and women, in which women consistently underestimate their abilities while men generally overstate theirs. Confidence—which is your level of self-assurance with your own skills and potential—is an important leadership attribute that can help you transform troublesome experiences into increased levels of self-assurance, rather than letting them make you doubt your talents.
At SHAMBAUGH, we’ve found that three pillars combine to create your sense of confidence: brain science, your belief systems, and targeted development programs. As described in a previous post, you can actually reprogram your confidence level through coaching that helps you reframe your beliefs about what you bring to the table. This is because your beliefs—which can be self-limiting—become the catalyst for your thoughts and internal narrative that affect how you feel about yourself. In SHAMBAUGH’s Women in Leadership and Learning (WILL) program and coaching practice for women, we get to the core of women’s beliefs by helping them pause and reexamine their belief system. Building your confidence level is an important precursor to preparing for effective leadership in the 21st century—and fortunately, thanks to programs like this, there’s no reason to suffer from too little confidence.