by Italia Boninelli
Despite the plethora of literature on gender equity issues and the range of women’s development programmes, women are still asking: “Why is it so difficult to break through the glass ceiling?” The tips that follow come from my personal experience in executive roles across different industries and the insights gained from coaching women in senior management and executive roles together with the results of a research study I conducted in a South African bank, focused on identifying which factors allowed women to break through the ranks.
Understanding the competencies required of the job at the next level
Tip 1: Get a copy of the role description and KPIs of the job you aspire to, so you can start to assess what is really required to succeed and what your gaps might be.
Many women continue to believe that delivering good results at their current job level will eventually be noticed and earn them a promotion. But the initial strengths that led to promotions early in their careers can later become “fatal flaws” when women continue to repeat the same formula and fail to realize that success at the next level up is not ‘more of’ what they are currently doing but adding qualitatively different competencies and skills. Yet with only a very loose understanding of how operating at a strategic level as an executive differs from what they are currently doing, there is little chance of building a coherent strategy for developing the additional skills and competencies required for the next level of work up.
Bridging the gaps
Tip 2: Ask yourself: “How good is my environmental scanning? What feedback loops have I created? Is ‘Best Practice’ part of my ongoing plan?”
Successful executives put in place some key practices to enhance their skills in areas where they have gaps or staff their teams with people with appropriate skills who can compensate. For example, in order to deliver solutions which will move the dial for the company, one needs to be informed of best practice, be able to identify developing trends and be fully in touch with how customers, staff and other key stakeholders’ expectations are being met.
Insufficient long-term career planning and risk propensity
Tip 3: Identify which some ‘key achievements’ you hope to complete in the next career cycle and create the time and mental space and find the resources to ensure you achieve these.
It is all too easy to get caught up in dozens of e-mails a day, ten meetings a day and five crises a day and arrive at the end of the year exhausted but with nothing of great significance to show for all the effort. Many of the successful executives set clear career goals for each career cycle of 3-5 years and even write their CV that way –the first page usually contains a set of ‘key achievements’. These executives also show a higher risk propensity and will take a job that is somewhat outside their normal area of expertise because it represents an opportunity to gain experience in a new area. Even when such moves prove less than successful, they seem better able than women to capitalise on the learning experience and avoid immobilising self-doubt, accepting the lack of success as a short-term situation.
Breadth vs. depth of skills
Tip 4: Take every opportunity to build the breadth of your business acumen and to demonstrate your ability to generate solutions across the business value chain, and not just within your discipline.
Almost all managers display a significant depth of experience which has supported their career success thus far. However, many women spend considerably more time in staff or specialist roles rather than in line roles, while the managers who later make successful executives had made more frequent career shifts and as a result were more knowledgeable about different functions and divisions. They were thus better able to provide integrated solutions born out of a wider perspective of the organization.
Mentors, coaches and development plans
Tip 5: Stop waiting for someone to assign you a mentor or coach. Go out and seek one – just be realistic as to the time availability of senior people with busy calendars.
Many women report that they do not have mentors or coaches and that developmental plans are not regularly discussed with them by their managers. While this reflects poorly on their managers who are not actively developing them, it reflects equally poorly on the women themselves who have not taken proactive steps to address this shortcoming. The majority of successful executives report having had a strong mentor and/or coach at critical points of their career and also mentioned having taking taken proactive steps at the early stages of their career in approaching someone in a senior position and asking to be mentored.
Networking and relationship management
Tip 6: Rethink your networking strategies. First step is to realise what you have of value to offer (refer to those ‘key achievements’) and then work out what other people have of value to offer and accept that networking is like an exchange of commodities.
Many successful executives display a characteristic pattern of networking that differs from that of other groups. Successful executives use networking to establish ‘Contacts’ who can provide them with information, influence, introductions, invitations, access and power that can really help leverage the solutions they can develop. Women tend to see networking as they would personal friendships i.e. requiring a level of emotional commitment usually reserved for only a handful of close relatives and friends. While women typically reported having a network of 30-50 people at that level, the successful executives reported networks of in excess of 200 people.
Self-esteem & Personal branding
Tip 7: Personal branding is a skill that can be learnt and effectively applied.
Many of the executives have an instinctive grasp of personal branding and have used this to their advantage, compared to the relative modesty that characterised the women who often failed to take credit for their successes or did not market and brand themselves well. Women often fail to project an image of self-confidence or at times ‘over-compensate’ coming across as overly aggressive and ‘more of a man than the men’.
Females may lack certain key competencies required for executive functioning, which were not adequately covered in past developmental programmes, appraisal processes or job exposure. But this is not irremediable – as has clearly been shown. Organizations in turn need to address the cultural and organizational climate issues which create unnatural barriers to the progression of women. They can also provide the training and development opportunities and the access to mentors and coaches which would ensure that more women are enabled to reach the top layers of the organization.
Italia Boninelli is an HR Strategist and Executive coach (Previously Executive VP: People & Org. Dev, AngloGold Ashanti)
- The ‘glass ceiling’ can best be described as that invisible barrier that allows you to see to the top of the corporate ladder but blocks off access to the top rungs.
- Italia has held executive roles in financial services, healthcare and mining. She is now an independent consultant and executive coach.
- Boninelli, Italia. (2004) “Is the glass ceiling a myth or reality?” in HR Future, 18 February 2004, pp. 18-20.