When I was growing up in Ireland, I’d sometimes be told not to be bold. In fact, I’d hear it quite often. Being told not to be bold in my Irish childhood was a reprimand for kicking my brother’s shins or wolfing biscuits without asking. Chided for being bold is a semi playful, gentle term that all Irish children, and adults, recognise as a term for misbehaving. It wasn’t the term used for courage, resilience, or persistence.
But many years of working with leaders have taught me that boldness is the very quality needed to make your mark in business, to be an effective leader. To become better connected to yourself, your team, and your organisation, you need to be bold. To overcome the unconscious, natural biases and shortcuts that help you cope with information overload – but at the same time lead us to make predictable mistakes – you need to be bold. And to foster a culture of innovation by looking to the edges for their inspiration, you need to be bold.
This is particularly true for women looking to become leaders. Because although women make up more than half of the workforce in developed and developing economies alike, research from around the world shows that women are seriously under-represented in leadership positions. Data from the Global Institute of Women’s Leadership show that:
· Women make up just 15% of corporate board members
· Only a quarter of all national parliamentarians(23%), media leaders (26%), judges (27%), and senior managers (25%) are women
· And fewer than one in ten of senior IT leaders are women
Why women still have away to go
There are many theories put forward to explain why women lag men in the leadership stakes. For me, there are three principal causes.
First, the organisational culture and structure of business remains more or less unchanged since the industrial revolution, a time when women’s legal, property-owning, and voting rights were a long way short of parity. Although there are organisations making great strides in diversity and inclusion, they remain in the minority.
Second, our innate cognitive biases – shortcuts that enable us to make decisions under threat and uncertainty – lead us to make predictable but unfortunate mistakes, as shown here. In the case of female under-representation in leadership roles, these include both selective attention and confirmation bias. Because men are the de facto leaders in many industries and organisations, when recruitment panels and boards are looking to appoint the next generation of leaders, too often they appoint the type of leaders they’ve had before and see in other leadership roles, and they’re usually men. This is changing, but glacially slowly. Even on something as simple as pay equality, in 2017 the World Economic Forum revised its estimate of when parity would be achieved in pay upwards by 101 years, to the year 2234.
And third, women resist stretch challenges while – by contrast – men push themselves forward to take on new and tough opportunities. Even when they’re not qualified or sufficiently experienced to undertake a project or a role, men are much more likely than women to say “I’ll give it a go” and work at the edge of comfort. A report in the Harvard Business Review showed that while men are prepared to apply for jobs if they’re 60% qualified, women – typically – don’t apply unless they can meet every one of the specifications required for a role. A more recent study in the same journal reported that another factor holding women back from leadership roles is their unwillingness to volunteer for tasks that lead to promotions. Too often, women prefer comfort-zone activities where they feel safe and in control.
How to change the status quo
The simple remedy to this situation is for business to address these challenges head on – to change the organisational structure of business, to do more than run tick-box training sessions to tackle unconscious biases, and for women to push themselves forward and take opportunities at the edge of comfort. And these are all good strategies for enabling and empowering women to be bold in their leadership behaviours.
But beyond that, I’ve developed a three-part framework that I know many women find helpful, a framework that enables them to be and become bold in the workplace, to achieve and sustain their leadership ambitions. I call this framework “Dream – Dare – Do”.
Creating and expressing a vision is one of the most powerful and fundamental leadership tools available. It’s a superpower that enables you to teleport yourself into the future, to envision what you want for yourself, your team, your organisation. You can imagine what kind of leader you will be, how the structure may need to change, what you’ll be like to work with, and who your typical and ideal customers will be. You can then step back from the future to the present, assess what needs to happen between then and now, and put in place the steps you need to close the gap.
There are lots of different ways of mapping out your personal vision, and one of the most effective and creative ways I’ve found is to storyboard the process in order to fully bypass the critical thoughts we can leap to when something is out of our range of comfortable cognitive processes. Hand out incredibly simple tools like magazines, scissors, and glue, along with a set of challenging vision questions and it’s remarkable how tomorrow’s leaders can face up to, imagine, and then create their future.
If you don’t dare to take the steps necessary to deliver your vision, it doesn’t get done. There are two parts to dare. The first the involves saying yes, the second saying no; edge of comfort yeses and strategic noes.
Edge of comfort yeses demand that you volunteer for stretch targets and things you feel uncomfortable with. As we’ve already seen, many women feel very uncomfortable taking on anything that they don’t feel 100% qualified to do, while men are typically happy to take on jobs for which they’re only 60% qualified. Saying yes to edge of comfort yeses is less about the process of achievement, and more about being outside of your comfort zone. Let’s rename the term comfort zone and start calling it the learning zone.
The second part of dare is saying no – not obstinately or randomly, but strategically. The second HBR article I mentioned above reveals that, too often in business, women volunteer for supportive tasks that help others out but aren’t the kind of tasks that lead to promotion – busy work. Rather than offer to help others out to complete tasks which are theirs, women should choose to say no strategically to tasks that dilute their impact, and should rightfully be done by others. You don’t have to do them, someone else can. Daring means daring to say yes as well as no, in the right circumstances.
The third step on the path to being bold is do. Do is everything. Be sure you do what you’re say you’re going to do and follow-up relentlessly. If you don’t put into practice what you’ve said you’ll do, you’ll have little to show for it. I often encourage women to “lean in” a bit less. Despite its good intentions, Sheryl Sandberg’s well-meaning encouragement has done many women in business a great disservice. Leaning in can often be the classic embodiment of female passivity. Rather than leaning in, I recommend that women do, ask, create, and lead.
Where do I start?
In encouraging women to be bold –by dreaming, daring, and doing – I’m keen to ensure that more of us start to raise our hands for edge of comfort challenges and opportunities. This is the route to greater knowledge, experience, and expertise. Ultimately, it’s the route to leadership impact.
But there’s also a role for men here, too. Too often I’ve heard men talking about the types of statistics I shared above, and they say they’re appalled about the status quo because they have wives and daughters in this very situation. For me, that’s not much more than paying lip service to the issue. Apathy and doing nothing are unacceptable. Awareness and action are steps in the right direction. But what men really need to do is advocate for women to lead and take on challenges at the edge of comfort. They should put women in their team forward for stretch targets and not accept them doing busy work to prop up others’ achievements, without recognition in their own right.
What’s more, there’s an economic imperative we should all bear in mind, beyond the legal, ethical, and moral imperatives. Boards, teams, and indeed entire organisations that are gender-balanced make better decisions, perform better, and are more commercially successful. What better reasons could there be for men to become advocates of women leaders?
 Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde, & Lise Vesterlund(2018). Why Women Volunteer for Tasks That Don’t Lead to Promotions, HBR, https://bit.ly/2NlnDjL
Eight challenges leaders will need to address in the coming decade
The pace of change in modern business is dizzying, and leaders who aren’t prepared for the challenges on the horizon may find themselves leading their organisations into the history books.In 1958, the average lifespan of a company listed on the S&P 500 stock exchange in the U.S. was 61 years. Today that lifespan is just 18 years – and falling. At the current rate of attrition, three quarters of companies currently listed on the index will have changed in the next decade. The story’s the same in stock markets around the world.
The human brain is a wonderful thing. The most powerful supercomputer on earth, and every one of us has the latest model sitting right between our ears. It’s what enables us to do uniquely human things. Things like planning for the future, inventing and innovating, and imagining the world from other people’s points of view. All critical skills for aspiring leaders, and all delivered thanks to generations of refinement to the structure and psychology of the human brain.