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the one trait that female leaders need to remember

Updated by Hays UAE, March 2017

Author: Yvonne Smyth, Director and Head of Diversity, Hays

Female leaders are still in a minority; they hold 12 percent of board seats globally and comprise just four percent of CEOs leading the world’s 500 top corporations. For those women who do reach the top, there is always a significant interest in their ‘back story’ and personal narrative.

For example, Emma Walmsley’s appointment as CEO of GlaxoSmithKline in September 2016, secured as many column inches for her gender and the fact that she had four children, as it did for her appointment as the leader of one of the world’s largest companies.

The absence of these personal details accompanying the appointment of a male CEO is a testament to the fact that there are still significant disparities in the typical career trajectories of men and women respectively.

Many women who do lead, are happy to help others progress their own career journeys by sharing their insights and experiences. This often takes the form of ‘ advice I would have given my 25-year-old self’. The British American Business Women’s Forum Conference 2016 saw a number of these successful women sharing their stories and recommendations to a room of over 300 career-minded women on a range of subjects.

The BAB Women’s Forum is chaired by me and offers a full programme of member events throughout the year for BAB members, culminating in the conference. One of the major themes explored at the conference was the behavioural traits that female leaders tend to adopt in the workplace and the extent to which these are authentic and sustainable.

The traits women are advised to adopt

A number of platform speakers described how certain behavioural traits have become labelled as either feminine or masculine and how societal behaviour norms tend to influence the expectation and demonstration of these traits.

One study which supports this found that in a number of performance reviews, women tended to be offered significantly more advice than their male counterparts on the behaviours expected of them as they progress their careers. For example, the phrase “too aggressive” showed up three times as much in women’s reviews as it did in men’s.

During the conference, Chris Lecatsas-Lyus, Director of Career Management – Europe at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, affirmed this when she talked extensively about how women are expected to act in an empathetic and collaborative way while as leaders, they also need to stay clearly focused on their own career ambitions.

This can sometimes lead to mixed messaging on the traits and behaviours that the female leaders of today and tomorrow are expected to bring to their roles. These contradictory recommendations being given to more women than men runs the risk of restricting the ability of a female professional to operate as an authentic leader.

The one trait they need to remember

Why is authenticity important? We recently explored this concept across a series of master classes hosted across the UK in Autumn/Winter 2016, attended by 150+ members of the Hays Leading Women network. These master classes were held in partnership with executive coaching consultants, Apter Development. We considered how an authentic leader has a strong awareness of the values they have and how this, in turn, underpins a consistency for the decisions they make and the way they interact with those that they lead.

In not being authentic, a leader runs the risk of having an unnatural, uncomfortable leadership style and this lack of authenticity is often sensed by those being led. While the importance of authenticity is equally applicable to both men and women, we need to be aware that certain traditional and expected leadership styles can often be associated with male traits, such as being assertive, openly competitive and single-minded. Women are often encouraged to take on or suppress behavioural traits to a greater or lesser extent and may end up leading with a style that is less than true to themselves and therefore not authentic.

Understand and lead with your authentic self

Apter advised that the key to understanding your authentic self is to think back and honestly explore your own autobiography and life story. So often, personal experiences shape the way a person behaves and interacts with others. To understand this, and to consciously link this to the way you communicate and make decisions, will provide consistency and a sense of conviction in your leadership style.

According to Apter, a useful first step is to reflect on how your friends and family would describe you and how they react to you when you are being your true, genuine self as opposed to your work self. An analogy was made to consciously or unconsciously leave your true self ‘in the car park’ as you ‘step through the doors of the office’ and into the professional role which has come to be expected of you.

Being aware of the ‘gap’ there may be as you transition from one to the other on a daily basis, and could help you understand how others perceive you as a leader. By capturing the positive aspects of your ‘car park self’ and to confidently use them to build your own style of leadership, you can narrow this gap and improve the impact and sustainability of your impact as an authentic leader.

In sum, be aware of the advice that is offered on how to behave to be successful. While more often than not, this is well intended, it might result in your behaviour reinforcing stereotyped leadership traits. These, in turn, may get in the way of your authenticity when leading others.

I hope you have found the above advice useful. For more insights about the world of work and tips for your career, visit our dedicated blog page here or click on one of the links below.