One Size Does NOT Fit All–Empowering Women Executives

At the Society for Information Management Women conference held on Thursday, May 5th in Chicago, IL, one of the keynote speakers Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates Communications, described efforts of many companies to empower their women executives and how these efforts fail despite good intentions because they take a “one size fits all” approach.

I had the opportunity to attend the conference, although I am not a woman nor in information management, because of the good fortune I had to represent our Project Management Institute’s Chicagoland chapter as one of the sponsors of the event.

So I gave about the chapter during the network breaks, but was able to attend the keynote speaker presentations, including the one by Suzanne Bates.

First of all, some statistics on women executives.   Although women represent 47% of the labor force, and 44% of all MBAs earned are by women, only 14-15% of executives are women.    Companies have long recognized the need to diversify their work force, and have done various activities to encourage women to become executives or develop their career once they are executives.

But, according to Suzanne Bates, one of the activities they try to do is to send ALL women on workshops, for example, to increase their confidence.   This sometimes backfires–but why?    Because if you study the trait of “confidence”, and to statistical studies of the performance reviews of men and women, you find the startling conclusion that men are not, as a group, more confident than women.   Women, on the other hand, if they are feeling a lack of self-confidence, tend to express this more to colleagues, whereas men who are feeling this way tend to bottle up these feelings inside.   So the PERCEPTION is that women are less confident, but that is not the REALITY of the situation.

In order to tease out reality from perception, Suzanne Bates created a set of metrics for “executive presence” that fall into one of three categories:

  1. Character–qualities of the leaders as a person that are fundamental to his or her identity and ive us reason to trust him or her:   Authenticity, Integrity, Concern, Restraint, Humility
  2. Substance–cultivated qualities of mature leadership that inspire commitment, inform action, and lead to above-and-beyond effort:  Practical Wisdom, Confidence, Composure, Resonance, Vision
  3. Style–Overt-skill-based patterns of communicative leadership that build motivation and shape and sustain performance:  Appearance, Intentionality, Inclusiveness, Interactivity.

In measuring these traits among male and female executives, the surprising result was that more significant difference among women than between men and women executives taken as a group.    By just telling women to “be more confident”, we are not teaching women the specific skills they need to succeed, by focusing on the strengths among the above traits they already have, and developing a plan to shore up their weaknesses.

By doing an “executive presence” skills assessment, and then following up with external coaching and internal mentoring, women can increase the skills they need to both be and be perceived to be strong executives who earn the respect of their teams, their colleagues, and their direct reports.

In the end, Suzanne Bate concluded that women, it turns out, are not ‘broken’ and do not therefore need to be fixed to succeed in the corporate culture. It is the corporate culture itself that needs to be fixed, by allowing both men and women executives a chance to improve their specific executive presence skills they need to focus on to succeed.

I was so impressed with the talk that I am making sure I send a copy of her book “All the Leader You Can Be” to my fellow directors at the Chicagoland chapter of the Project Management Plan to see how we can implement its contents to diversity our leadership at our chapter!


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