We know that diverse teams perform better. We know that diverse teams are smarter and more innovative. But we continue to find that teams do not truly reflect our communities and customers, and we don’t realize the benefits of diversity. Women are underrepresented in many leadership roles, leaving great talent “on the bench” and creating a disadvantage for companies that don’t have access to all the talent available.
I’ve talked with many leaders who would like to promote more women, yet haven’t been able to make it happen. If you want great results, you need a great team; you can’t have a great team without diversity. Your work in this area is as important to your results as your work in strategy and planning.
So what’s a leader to do?
I used to believe that a meritocracy was the best path to diversity; that equal treatment would allow great talent to rise. I now realize that view was naïve, and underestimates the differences in our culture and even our hidden bias. I now recommend that leaders adjust their approach to the person (treating everyone differently), to foster the best talent in their organizations.
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have written about one barrier to women in leadership in The Confidence Code. There is a strong case that men and women approach work differently, and that women are more likely to doubt their abilities and readiness for promotion. If we treat people as if they are the same, we will surely leave our less confident leaders sitting on the bench.
Here’s the story of how a leader sparked my ambition and gave me the gift of confidence:
I was running a large retail store early in my career. I had been promoted from a smaller operation to a large, complex, turnaround assignment. I had made some progress, but was struggling with results as I was learning how to turn around a broken team. Thankfully, a senior leader named Dave Eske recognized my potential, and took the time to tell me so. Dave expressed to me his faith in my abilities, his recognition of my strengths, and his belief that I could be an officer in this company one day. When Dave told me this, I was only trying to get my store running right; it had never occurred to me that I could rise to the level he described.
Here are three things Dave did right:
1. He recognized potential and the need for confidence.
Dave didn’t assume that I would see the opportunity that he saw for me; he was explicit in showing me what I could accomplish.
2. He was willing to take a risk, and share his honest thoughts on my abilities.
Leaders are often hesitant to fully express their enthusiasm for someone’s potential; what if they are wrong? What if they need to later give the person difficult feedback? I’d recommend taking the risk; your sincere belief in a leader may transform their perspective.
3. He advocated and sponsored my success.
Dave continued to coach me in my development, and supported me in discussions with his peers about talent. His ongoing support backed up his belief in my abilities.
Dave sparked my ambition, and grew my confidence. I went on to become an officer at our company, leading national store operations. I’ll always be grateful for his support.
We can make a difference in advancing diversity and women in leadership, and realize the fantastic business benefits of having the best team. Let’s find those leaders that need a confidence boost, and get them off the bench and into the game!