Things are very different from when I first stepped into a senior executive role seventeen years ago. Female leaders now enjoy more opportunities, more challenging work and greater expectations of capability. With more women at the top of organisations, there is a greater diversity of strong female role models across the public sector and business. This creates a virtuous cycle of talent development as younger women look up and think, ‘I could do that too’.
However, some subtle differences remain – particularly regarding performance expectations. There is still a tendency for women to be encouraged to take on portfolios and types of work at which women are stereotypically considered to be ‘good’; for example, more people- or caring-orientated roles.
I observe that strong women leaders may be more likely to take on riskier leadership roles in times of organisational turmoil – and perhaps be less likely to protect themselves from criticism, focusing instead on engaging authentically. This may go part way to explaining why the public and media may seem less forgiving of female than of male leaders when things don’t go well, often targeting their appearance rather than their performance. Despite this, women should continue to lead courageously and manage complexity and challenge with integrity.
Regardless of gender, being a great leader who drives performance is about mobilising resources to deliver great outcomes. Some of that comes from intelligence and insight, some from balancing support with challenge, and some from being able to get people on your side. Leading staff through uncertain territory in times of change especially requires trust and openness. This is obtained through being a collaborative rather than a competitive leader.
Achieving the right balance of push, pull, challenge, stretch and support may be tricky; but authentic leadership predicated on good intentions will enlist the support of employees and peers. Forging relationships across and beyond organisational boundaries enables good leaders to develop the strategic buy-in from others to facilitate change. Connection to the client yields the strategic insight that guides effective decision making.
My ultimate advice for women in or aspiring to leadership roles is to be aware of biases, but don’t let them define you. Take calculated risks. Be hard-nosed, push on performance and drive on what matters – but be warm-hearted, and care about people. Finally, make use of networks – of both men and women.
This article was originally published on the Criterion Conferences website ahead of the Public Sector Women in Leadership Conference, at which Sonia will lead a workshop on ‘How to be a competitive leader in the public space’.