Not only have gender-related leadership conversations emerged lately in the media, the attraction, retention, and development of talented women has become an important issue for many employers in recent years. Organizations are increasingly recognizing the need to develop and support more female leaders in their workplace.
"We seem to be getting more and more requests lately for training and coaching programs that address the specific needs of women in the workplace," says Chris Kutsko, Director of Learning & Development at ERC. She explains, "Subjects like Assertiveness, Personal Branding, Empowerment, and Leadership for Women are topics that are getting more attention. In addition, C-Level executives are making a more conscious effort to equip their female leaders with the tools, training, and support to help them achieve higher levels within the organization."
Developing more female leaders sometimes raises challenges and questions for organizations, in terms of how they can support, train, and develop them, as their needs are often different from male leaders. Here are some suggestions.
Supporting female leaders
In the case of leadership development and other workplace practices related to advancement and promotion, a gender-neutral and performance-based approach is advocated, but organizations can put into place some additional support for females.
We've found that employers tend to successfully attract female leaders, support existing leaders, or develop up-and-coming female talent by offering:
- Flexible work schedules and accommodations
- Access to internal and external networking groups
- Mentoring (formal or informal)
- Targeted development
- Competitive maternity benefits
- Career lattices or alternative ways of attaining leadership roles
- Personalized coaching
Training female leaders
In ERC’s experience in developing or training female leaders and when creating female-specific leadership development programs for companies, certain topics tend to be especially relevant and useful for women. These include the following:
- Personal branding/empowerment
- Leadership development
- Time, priority, and stress management
Traditional leadership topics should also be covered in training. Such areas may include strategic thinking, delegation, performance management, team-building, emotional intelligence, and presentation/communication skills.
Developing female leaders
A great example that sparks this greater emphasis on female leadership in the workplace, is Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In." Sandberg offers several valuable leadership development tips, whether you are an existing female leader, emerging leader, or help train and develop female leaders—or any leader for that matter.
The advice she offers on female leadership development also can serve organizations well as they try to develop and build leaders, as many of these strategies have proven useful for leadership development. Although several points are raised in the book, she points out the following as key to female leadership development...
- Initiative and risk-taking. Emerging leaders need to “sit at the table,” learn to raise their hand, take initiative, speak up and challenge how things are being done, propose new solutions, and take risks. As employers, it's important to encourage and praise employees for exemplifying these types of behaviors, and create a culture of empowerment and personal responsibility that allows them to do this.
- Career opportunities. View careers as a lattice (or “jungle gym” as Sandberg calls it) rather than a ladder. This allows for greater exploration and can help people obtain skills in different functions that are helpful for leadership. For individuals, this requires taking opportunities in other areas and functions. Additionally, employers should allow employees to move within the organization and pursue cross-functional assignments and roles in different areas when possible.
- "Stretch" job experiences. Job experiences are crucial in developing leaders, such as actively seeking stretch assignments, taking on high visibility projects, and volunteering for new opportunities when they become available. And, as organizations, we need to do our part to make these challenging opportunities and projects available and communicate them to our staff.
- Mentoring. Mentorship is crucial for career success; however, Sandberg argues that formal mentors who have no real connection to their protégé are not very effective. Natural mentoring which forms out of workplace relationships between senior and lower-level employees, and which are initiated by the mentors themselves, are best. Mentors often seek to develop employees who perform at a high level and show potential, and who remind them of themselves.
Developing all leaders—male or female—is very important in the workplace, but as organizations increasingly strive to improve leadership development of women specifically, these are particularly useful strategies for their efforts.