Tony was baffled. His direct report, Susan, was enormously productive. Her team clearly loved working with her, and she was considered a high potential in the organization. Yet she always seemed pulled in a dozen directions rather than focused on the areas that Tony had indicated as strategic priorities.
While he admired her attention to detail and ability to multitask, Tony saw the flip side of these strengths as a tendency to get bogged down in the minutia of a project and an inability to delegate. Moreover, Susan seemed less decisive and directive than a senior leader should be. Tony knew her extremely collaborative style made her well-liked by her team and other business units, who were always asking her to be on interdepartmental committees, but to him it seemed needlessly time consuming and conflict averse.
When it was time for Susan’s annual review, Tony ranked her as below average in delegation, decisiveness, and strategy setting. She clearly was a workhorse, but he didn’t know if she’d ever be ready to lead. He knew she was expecting a promotion to the senior leadership team, but she just didn’t seem ready.
Susan was gobsmacked.
What happened to Susan is something I see all too often among talented people (usually women) with clear leadership ability and passion for their professions, and it results in part from a lack of understanding between them and their (usually male) bosses.
For instance, research has found that women tend to gravitate toward collaborative efforts that require a greater time investment, whereas men prefer solo decision making and directive action. Women also tend to invest more time in developing and helping others, which may garner them high marks for collaboration and inclusivity but comes at the expense of their own opportunities for promotion. (There is evidence that although their managers may want them to say no to such “extracurricular” projects, there are greater costs for women who decline to help others at the office than for men who do so.)
I’ve previously discussed what women like Susan can do to offset these differences and support their own development, but managers, too, play an important role in helping to level the scales.
Give goal-oriented feedback. In my work with companies, I’ve found that although women value feedback, they rarely receive it, particularly from men. Research has found that the feedback women do get tends to be about their personalities, not about business outcomes. For men, it’s the reverse.
But if the feedback women get is personal, not results-oriented, they won’t know what you want them to spend their time on. Make sure you give goal-oriented feedback to all your employees.
Map out a clear path to promotion. In order to succeed, employees need clear information from their managers that goes beyond day-to-day execution. Leaders should take the time to map out the bigger picture and share the strategic view of the company for each of their employees.
Tell employees which activities will get them promoted, which will hold them back, and which they need to delegate or minimize in order to make room for new ones. Managers and employees can then map out, together, a career development plan so that the path forward is clear to everyone.
See the value in collaborative leadership. Managers should keep in mind that a collaborative leadership model does have benefits. While collaboration can quickly become a time suck if overused, embracing it is important for both men and women in the right circumstances. It can help create a more inclusive workplace culture that combines the strengths of both genders and a broader spectrum of diverse talent. Dealing with deadlines, putting out fires, and managing the day-to-day processes and systems end up overshadowing the creation of the type of culture where everyone can thrive.
And while building trust and consensus early in a project might seem time-consuming at the start, it has long-term benefits. Embrace and reward a more collaborative leadership style that prioritizes being a good listener and knowing how to engage others — qualities that usually are associated with women but that a good manager of anyone must learn how to master.
Focus on results. Most of us prefer our own working style; that’s why we adopted it. But leaders must understand that “different” doesn’t mean “worse.” I’ve observed this misconception playing out in many organizations where the women are seen as excessively collaborative or as perfectionists. They’re thought to have an excessive attention to detail that ultimately diminishes their personal capacity to take on more responsibility and to be seen as a leader rather than a doer.
While gender-based differences in communications, problem solving, decision making, and thinking styles remain a subject of debate, the latest research on brain science suggests that there are multiple factors, including different social experiences between genders, that may play a role.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter why any one person is different; research has shown that differences in work style and approach do not mean that female leaders are less effective than male leaders. Focus more on the results that female leaders create and less on the style behind how they get those results.
Unpack hidden biases. One of the biggest obstacles to creating and leveraging inclusive, results-focused cultures is management biases. It can be uncomfortable to examine our biases, much less admit to them, but everyone does have them. Today’s leaders need to hold teams accountable for ensuring that they represent a balance of thinking and diverse views, and that everyone on the team (themselves included) examine their biases. Without coming face to face with your own biases and those of other leaders, you may end up blocking productivity and limiting the growth and opportunities of talented people.
After Susan got over her shock at being passed up for promotion, she and Tony had a wide-ranging conversation in which she explicitly laid out the benefits of her collaborative style. Tony was able to convince her that she’d been overdelivering on some projects and that it was time to hand that work off to subordinates so that she could focus more on strategy. Together, they created a road map to get her to the next level. After a few months, Tony was able to evaluate Susan’s achievements in a new light. He recognized that without her valuable committee work, consensus building, and emphasis on teamwork, her division would not have reached several specific benchmarks last quarter. As a result, he recommended Susan for promotion at the next review period.
*Names have been changed.
Rebecca Shambaugh is an internationally recognized leadership expert, author, and keynote speaker. She’s president of SHAMBAUGH, a global leadership development organization and Founder of Women In Leadership and Learning (WILL).
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