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The Proteus Leader Show #34: Women as Leaders

Erika has a candid talk with friend and Proteus Senior Consultant, Cindy Swensen, who works with a lot of senior women across a wide variety of organizations to distinguish the main impediments to women's professional success in business today and what organizations can do to become more supportive of women's success at every level.

00:00-00:55 - Introduction

00:55- 03:19- What are the Main Impediments to Women's Professional Success

03:20-03:59 - Where Companies Need to Focus, to Balance The Playing Field

04:00-05:50 How Similar Attraction Affects Feedback

05:51-09:47 How Unconscious Biases Factor In

12:59-13:50 - Closing

Intro: 00:01 You're listening to the Proteus Leader Show with Erika Andersen, where you'll get practical tools and insights for leading, managing and staying ready for the future. Erika is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses uniquely on leader readiness. A nationally known executive coach and bestselling author, you may already know her as one of the most popular leadership bloggers on Ready for something you can use today? Here's Erika.

Erika: 00:31 Hello everyone and welcome back to the Proteus Leader Show. Today's guest is my colleague and friend, Cindy Swensen. Cindy has been with us at Proteus for about 10 years as an executive coach, facilitator and consultant. She joined us after a successful career in financial services, so Cindy, it's wonderful to have you on the show.

Cindy: 00:52 Well, thanks Erika. I appreciate your having me.

Erika: 00:55 Yeah, I know one of your passions is women in leadership and you've created and overseeing some of our most successful leadership development programs for women, so I thought your experience and your insights would be hugely helpful to our listeners. Okay. I know you work with a lot of senior women across a wide variety of organizations, so what do you see as the main impediment in business today to women's professional success?

Cindy: 01:21 The main impediment, you know, Erika, I'm going to start with what the main impediments aren't because there's a lot of misinformation out there. So for the last 15 years or so, we've had women's programs that have taught, you know, training in being strategic and power, politics and influence and have been great and women have learned a lot of the skills that top leaders need to have, but, the issue is - that's kind of half of the solution and so we've got half of it done. We need to focus on the other half which are really mindset, behavioral and structural shifts at some of the companies and quite often it's mindset and behavioral patterns that are involved with people who do hiring and promotions.

Erika: 02:10 Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Cindy: 02:12 You know, one of the key things that we see is that, the percentage of women drops off and this research is out there quite broadly. There was just a new study by Mckinsey and Lean In where despite the fact that women have more of a bachelor's degree, it's about 52 percent versus men, that first level of the entry level, they're brought in about 48 percent and then even though the pool is higher. And then at that first level of manager it drops off precipitously to 38 percent and once that happens, it's really, really hard to catch up. One of the reasons that happens is - it's just mindset of the folks who are doing the hiring. You know, quite often we hire folks who are like us and that's less risky and that seems to be happening over and over. And we've got some solutions for that.

Erika: 03:12 Okay. That's great. I love that and I can only assume that it just goes down and down from there.

Cindy: 03:19 For sure. It's interesting, I think the two places that we really need to focus is that first level from entry level to first manager because if you don't have a fair and equitable way of promoting folks, then you know you're never going to catch up. And then also at the very most senior level where women are about 23 percent, where if -there are a lot of studies that have found that if you get more women into the most senior roles then that whole similar attraction thing works to their benefit that more women are promoted.

Erika: 03:55 They start hiring and promoting people who are like them, e.g., women.

Cindy: 03:59 Yes, exactly. Exactly. So we're, we're hoping to come to some parody at some point. You know, there are a couple other things that happen along the way at that very first level that women are not given feedback. There's quite a bit of research both with the companies we've worked with them more broadly that at, at the first level as well as other levels throughout the organization, men are less likely to give women feedback because they fear the emotional response that may happen. And it's funny, I look at this from the outside like kind of how guys interact and how women interact sometimes. And I see it with my husband, you know, so if he has a friend of his over, it's very natural and guy-like for him to insult the other guy. If you insult another guy, that means you love them. Right?

Erika: 04:52 Right!

Cindy: 04:53 So the similar attraction piece as well as the way that they interact will lead them not to promote women like them and not to give them the feedback that they may need to improve. So I think those are two really big impediments for women's professional success.

Erika: 05:14 Oh, that's so helpful. And I can really see that, that like if you're used to telling a guy, hey, you got to get better, you're kind of terrible. And he goes, okay, ha ha. Versus women would take that very seriously and be, oh my god, okay, tell me what I need to do differently. So yeah.

Cindy: 05:31 Yeah. And it's augmented by the, the woman's kind of perception that they can't make mistakes so that they need to be perfect. So women kind of feel like they have to do all of the pieces of the job perfectly. And so it makes them less likely to ask for feedback too, which then also hurts their chances.

Erika: 05:51 Wow. This makes a lot of sense. So you've already kind of started talking about it, but I'd love to get your sense of what organizations can do to shift some of this and just become more supportive of women's success at all levels.

Cindy: 06:05 Yeah, I really think the number one thing is in the hiring and promotions area that if you can, if you can make that much less subjective and that if you have well defined competencies and criteria to help people hire and that there's transparency for those who are trying for those jobs know what the criteria are. So we've had a number of our clients who, you know, they've done every everything that they needed to do to be promoted and then have not have gotten frustrated with that. But sometimes they don't know what it is that they're missing what that gap may be. So that's one piece of the transparency of what do I actually need to do in this new job. And then the second is just trying to make that promotion piece more objective.

Erika: 07:04 How do you do that? Because I know some of the research that I've read shows that if you take exactly the same resume and say that it's a man or a woman, people will see it differently.

Cindy: 07:17 Yeah. In fact, there's a new study that showed that the person, if it's a man will be 71 percent more likely to be promoted. So that's kind of it. In that, how can you - maybe you take the name off to begin with? Um, I also think behind, you know, there's almost like a continuum of what we need to do, there has to be some mindset shift. There has to be a structural hiring and promotions. And I think on the back end, there needs to be some representation goals and a plan to meet them and an incentive for people to meet them. And some companies are doing this now. Not a lot, but some.

Erika: 07:59 Yeah. That's good. Okay. So I, and I especially like what you're saying about mindset. I mean sometimes it's in so many ways, not just with women but with people of color and people with disabilities, you know, it's people, people's biases completely unconscious. I mean, I suspect that if you, sat a group of hiring managers down and gave half of them, you know, the resume with a man's name, the other half, the same resume with a woman's name and then compared their reactions and then sort of showed it to them. It's like, look what you guys have done, - guys, men and women both - look what you folks have done in response to this. I think there's a lot of simple ways to create those "ah ha"s because for the most part, I think people don't want to have those biases. They just don't realize it.

Cindy: 08:51 Yeah, and I love that you said that Erika. It's something that I think is also kind of another crucial piece is to expose people's biases to themselves in a very experiential way. So I get concerned when there's bias training, that's kind of one way and delivering, you know, studies and what information is versus people actually experiencing it. So to me, if we can create some cultural bias training where people actually experienced it themselves and actually do it themselves, then they'll be much more likely to be conscious and be sensitive to it.

Erika: 09:35 Yeah, I think that's right. So then how about us? I mean, what about on an individual level, what are some of the key efforts that women - that we can make on our own behalf to support our own success?

Cindy: 09:46 Yeah. So I think one thing that it's really hard to do, and it's something that I had been not good at, is to ask for feedback early on. We almost feel like since we want to do everything better than it's ever been done before, we tend not to want to ask for that feedback because shoot, someone may find a hole in it. So I have learned to do this, but it's been hard. But if you think about anything that you're learning, like, I play tennis, I've played tennis for a gazillion years. I still need the guy to tell me or the woman to tell me to hit under the ball. Yeah, we all need feedback, but we have to ask for it. We can't expect - I've had a lot of women in the program say, "Hey, you know, I love this program. I finally, I haven't had a review in 10 years!"

Erika: 10:41 Yeah!

Cindy: 10:41 That is something that's a mantle we have to take on for ourselves and ask for feedback and then take it with grace. So if we ask for feedback and then get really defensive about it, it sets us back even further. It was like, whoa, I don't want to do that again.

Erika: 10:58 Yeah.

Cindy: 10:59 So that's one thing that I think is really crucial.

Erika: 11:02 Is there anything else? If you have one more piece of advice for women.

Cindy: 11:06 So there are other things that are really important for women to do and they can do this - you can do yourself. So quite often women will take on kind of what scene as - perceived to be lower value work because it needs to get done for the company to be successful and then when the time comes for promotion, they're not seen as having the skills for that next job because they've spent all their time getting the lower value work done.

Erika: 11:38 Ahhh, yeah.

Cindy: 11:38 You know, when I'm coaching folks, I really test them and then have them assess what the value to the organization of this project that they're asking you to do. Great, you're being asked to do something, but does it serve you well?

Erika: 11:55 That's great. It sounds like sort of the 21st century version of women, uh, you know, going to get everybody else coffee, kind of.

Cindy: 12:05 Yeah, for sure. And you could know you can take this to the home too because last I checked, there's still 24 hours in a day. And so we have very senior women, VERY senior women who are clients of ours who still do the majority of the childcare, housework, organizing, logistics. So just as we've got at work, be more strategic about what we're doing, we need to have those tough conversations with our spouses/significant others and make it a more equitable balance of who's doing what at home.

Erika: 12:42 That's great. Okay. So if you had one more to share with us, what would it be?

Cindy: 12:50 Oooh! I have so many more! The other thing that trips folks up, I find is, communicating with the right level of assertiveness. So in all of our programs it seems like at the beginning folks want the women to be assertive and decisive and all the things that show up in executive presence, right? You know, being decisive, showing teeth, the power, articulating a clear vision and then at some point it tips, you know, they go past the band of acceptable behavior for women and their communication style then becomes [unable to transcribe] or wow, you know, she's too aggressive or whatever it may be. And so what I would say to women in that case, it's really to learn SOCIAL STYLE and get really good at reading the room and recognizing your communication style, how it's impacting other folks. It's super important because it can trip you up.

Erika: 13:45 So it sounds like you're saying that flexibility, versatility is the most important to be able to really match your assertiveness level to the room and to what's expected and what will be accepted in that particular...

Cindy: 13:58 Exactly, and it's tough because the band is much smaller and we found that, you know, in all of the programs they want women to be assertive so that's good, but just not too assertive, so that's bad. And we've also seen what's good is that as more women are in senior management, that band actually gets bigger. So the band of acceptable behavior for women gets bigger.

Erika: 14:22 That's great. Oh Gosh. I know we're just scratching the surface and could go on and on, but I feel like you've really offered people a lot in the last 15 minutes or so. So thank you so much. It's been so fun!

Cindy: 14:36 Thanks, Erika!

Erika: 14:36 And a listeners, it's always wonderful to have you, and if you want to find out more about how Proteus approaches helping everyone become great leaders, just go to and check out the Accepted Leader topic. And as always, thank you for listening and here's to creating the life that you truly want.

Outro: 14:58 We hope you're feeling better equipped to create the career, the business and the life you want. For more insights and tools for leadership and management, join us Have an excellent day and thanks for listening.