Time to think differently

More diverse leadership is business critical in a complex environment, says Lubna Haq, director at Hay Group. A fundamental rethink of organisations’ cultures, behaviours, structures and practices is needed to achieve the necessary step change



Adiverse leadership team is becoming essential for organisations to compete in an increasingly complex business environment.

The current era of globalisation, slow growth, e-commerce, social media, big data and an ageing workforce requires new ways of working: ways that are more flexible, open, inclusive, collaborative and innovative than ever before.

In response, many organisations are dismantling their old, command-and-control leadership structures in favour of new, matrix-style roles. These carry much more accountability, but benefit from far less formal authority.

Leaders are therefore being forced to operate in a vast white space with just a handful of direct reports. To succeed in this context they need to be adept at collaborating with, influencing and quickly gaining the trust of their teams and peers.

A question of style
This new environment calls for both a more sophisticated and a more subtle approach to leadership: one which Hay Group data suggests women may be better able to adopt.

Hay Group’s research over many years has found that great female leaders employ a wider range of leadership styles than their male counterparts, enabling them to be more effective at motivating and engaging people to perform.

They are also more skilled at knowing how and when to use which style.

Women are better at capitalising on the short-term impact of more directive and pacesetting styles; and at reaping the longer-term benefits of so-called ‘softer’ approaches – such as being participative, collaborative and coaching. By contrast, men tend to rely heavily on a ‘just-get it-done’ or ‘do-it-like-me’ approach to leading (or both).

The broader leadership repertoire employed by women results in more committed, higher-performing teams.

One size doesn’t fit all
So the business case for a more diverse leadership team is clear. Yet women remain hugely under-represented at senior levels. Why do businesses habitually deprive themselves of half of the available talent pool?  There is ample evidence to suggest that it is traditional organisational hierarchies that hold women back.

Conventional approaches to hiring, rewarding, developing and promoting people have been built over many decades on the human need to surround ourselves with people most like us. The company cultures that this has generated often reflect a peculiarly male view of how to optimise performance.

As a result, current ways of working do not typically appeal to all, and can be particularly off-putting to women.

They also create an environment in which women feel they have to prove themselves in order to be taken seriously. Many women begin to doubt their own capabilities, and self-limiting beliefs set in that prevent them from taking advantage of opportunities.

In addition, female talent often lacks opportunities to develop and practice the skills for successful leadership that are available to men – for two key reasons.

A cultural problem
Firstly, cultures tend to be self-perpetuating. Organisations naturally continue to seek more of what they already have, recruiting and promoting people in the same, male-dominated vein.

And secondly, research shows that women are generally less openly self-promoting when it comes to securing promotions and pay rises.

Organisations therefore need to think very differently, top-down and bottom-up.

Although important, addressing everyday processes such as job design, recruitment, performance management, development and promotion will not be enough. Yes, these need to be fair, transparent and inclusive if they are to leverage women’s leadership skills on an equal footing with men’s. But businesses also need to challenge their existing cultures, values and power relationships.

Culture results from the ‘unwritten rules’ that govern how organisations operate. It is a product of not just the processes and procedures in place, but also how people behave, interact and communicate day-to-day.

Businesses need to examine all aspects of their cultures, and consider whether the same messages are being routinely conveyed to women as they are to men. This will prove challenging for, as noted, cultures tend to be self-perpetuating.

Cultural change will be difficult to effect while companies persist in operating in the same mould. It is an exercise that needs to start at the very top. Leadership teams must reflect on the sort of organisation the business needs to become if it is to leverage male and female talent, and on the changes necessary to get there.

Missing a trick
What’s clear is that organisations that lag behind when it comes to promoting women will miss out on some of the best potential leaders.

This can only damage performance. Successful companies will be those that embrace diversity, by developing and promoting effective women to key leadership roles.

Only by rethinking their cultures, structures and people practices will organisations be able to unleash the full potential of all the talent available to them.




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