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Your presence as a leader


This is the third of my weekly reflections on Diana Bilimoria’s MOOC on Women in Leadership. This week focused on self-confidence and navigating organisational politics.

Week 1: Developing your Leadership Identity
Week 2: The State of Women’s Leadership

Key takeaways for me this week were:

  1. Focus on your successes; reflect regularly on where you’ve excelled, and highlight your best work into conversation with senior colleagues;
  2. Working longer hours does not always mean working better; and 
  3. Seek out assignments that are challenging but where you know you can succeed.

There were three readings this week: The Confidence Gap, and two studies by Catalyst about whether women who try to ‘play by the rules’ lose out, Unwritten Rules and the Myth of the Ideal Worker.
The Confidence Gap is an interesting long-read about how ‘imposter syndrome’ impacts women, particularly as success correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence, underpinning the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ motto. However, I am always sceptical about articles that focus on how ‘female’ character traits or individual behaviours are responsible for women’s individual failures to climb further up the career ladder, as they risk setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘How stupid you are for not believing in yourself. You’re not trying hard enough. You’re never going to get anywhere.’

There are many reasons why women’s self-confidence can be low, particularly the ‘double bind’ whereby we are seen to be either too passive to be leadership material, or too aggressive to lead a team. Women’s lack of self-confidence can flow from both conditioning and lived experience. It is a product of structural problems, not individual failings, and the article is not strong enough in tackling that issue head on. For example, in citing the research that women tend to negotiate their starting salary less frequently, and negotiate for lower sums, the article fails to reflect on the negative impact that negotiating hard for a high salary has on how women are evaluated by their colleagues and bosses, burying that fact towards the bottom of the article.

Bilimoria’s lectures address different sources of self-confidence for men and women, in particular for women: authenticity, self-efficacy, adaptability, and persistence. Her insightful discussion of voice and non-verbal communication was particularly interesting: voice “is about having the courage to say what needs to be said to improve the outcome, but in a way that can be heard”. Shouting louder is not necessarily the answer. Saying the right things in the right way to the right people. Now there’s the rub.

The Catalyst report on unwritten rules was really fascinating. I was surprised that three of the eight ‘unwritten rules’ or strategies for advancement focused on working hours: working long hours (i.e. > 40h per week); spending time physically in the office, rather than working from home; and expressing the willingness to work long hours. The inclusion of the third suggests that working hours can be easily overlooked by employers, but I also wonder about the double-edged sword. If one routinely remarks on being in the office very late/early, it surely raises questions about efficiency? I think this is borne out by the statistics comparing how important people rate these strategies as being and how frequently they have used them in the past. 84% said they had used working long hours as a career advancing strategy, but only 46% of them thought it was an important one. Perhaps, having used it, they found it less effective then they’d anticipated. It’s interesting to note that it is more often women who use these time-based strategies, perhaps because of the stereotypes about women’s commitment to work, particularly if they have a family.

The report on the myth of the ideal worker highlights many of the same points. It’s aggregate of data posits an Ideal Worker as one who:

  • Actively seeks high-profile assignments
  • Rubs shoulders with influential leaders
  • Communicates openly and directly about their career aspirations
  • Seeks visibility for their accomplishments
  • Lets their supervisor know of the skills and willingness to contribute
  • Continually seeks out new opportunities
  • Learns the political landscape or unwritten rules of the company
  • Isn’t afraid to ask for help.
Some of these strategies are internal to an organisation, and others are external. People use them to various degrees, but the Ideal Worker in toto is one who is doing everything in their power to advance. It is interesting that the figures for men and women in each of the four ‘strategy profiles’ — climber (internal focus and proactive), hedger (external focus and proactive), scanner (external focus but less proactive) and coaster (internal focus but less proactive) — were about even. 
Yet using these strategies apparently does not help women as much as it helps men. (Other traditionally under-represented groups suffer similar challenges. See, for example, the report Why Studying and Working Hard Isn’t Enough for Black Americans.) In terms of strategies that are effective, women benefit most by making their achievements known. The implication is that women tend to be overlooked, as men did not see the same boost from making their achievements known, presumably because they were already known/seen. Women apparently earn more when they stay in places where they have proven their worth. Staying power is important for women, whilst men who move from job to job fare best. It is interesting to ask, from time to time, whether I am being valued for my potential — as a man might be — or for the weight of my achievements, and whether the latter forms the root of my love of acquiring qualifications and demonstrating competence in quite formal ways.


There were two exercises again this week. The first was to take and reflect on a Mindtools self-confidence assessment. I scored 50 in the assessment, which was at the top end of the “okay” band. I scored lowest on ‘mastery experiences’, or experiences where my own effort led to success. One of the suggestions for increasing the number of mastery experiences I have has made it into my list of key takeaways above: asking for tasks/roles where I know I can excel. I might need to fight for these assignments, if they are in areas where I have not already proven myself, but having a clear knowledge and belief about my own competences is an essential first step.

The second exercise was to map the power structure of my current organisation, as well as my relationships to the key influencers. This can be quite a difficult exercise unless one has a clear aim in mind, but I found it useful to reflect on the organisational structure and what concrete steps I could take to improve my own influence. This sounds Machiavellian, but it is important to know who can help, as a mentor or as a person with control over assignments, as well as who can hinder. And it’s also a good excuse to get out the colours pens! 


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