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Leader of the pack – women taking care of business

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What’s the common trait between Margaret Thatcher, Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, netballer Liz Ellis and Boost Juice’s Janine Allis? The simple answer is they are all women, but the more intelligent observation is that they also are all leaders, however they have placed themselves to the top by exhibiting the characteristics of showing others the way.

To deconstruct successful female leaders to give others a positive example, I knocked on the door of Dr Garry Tester, the CEO of Australian Corporate Challenge. A former athlete on the national stage, Tester won the support of government bodies interested in helping troubled school children with a program called Sports Challenge, which relied on sporting heroes who acted as mentors to help turn around these kids’ lives and attitudes.

Soon the business attracted the attention of companies keen to motivate and boost the performance of key staff members. This has meant Tester and his team have developed a vast and diverse set of leading edge consultancy skills which has allowed corporate, business, professional and sporting people to develop unique skills not offered elsewhere. His programs are designed to deliver innovation, motivation and empowerment, which are starting points for anyone determined to lead.  

Equal opportunities

I put Tester in the hot seat and picked his brain on what women need to know about leadership. Tester thinks there are a number of demons that women have to confront to become a leader or manager

The first is how to play effectively in a male-dominated business world. Second, is to know when to be forceful and passive to get a point of view across. Third, Tester thinks women need to back themselves where they have strength.

“They should use their Emotional Intelligence (EI) to engage men more effectively,” he recommends. “And they need to realise they are as good and, in many cases, better that most males in the workplace if they are suitably educated, have experience, believe in themselves, are passionate and want to move forward.”

The final challenge is about getting this mix right. Tester says it is crucial, so that frustration, anger and resentment do not creep into their psyche, which can be very counterproductive for career advancement. Generally, Tester thinks the environment is becoming more supportive to women looking to advance their business lives.

“There has been a quantum change in the government sector, but industry is lagging behind,” he observes. “Equal opportunity on merit according to most government departments is to get the best position no matter what gender.”

Emotion detector

He believes the expected increasing retirement levels will open up more opportunities for women with high business leadership hopes, but they will have to have the guts to step up to the plate.

“As the baby boomers retire in industry, the next generation of managers will embrace more women in management,” he tips. “Again the fear I see with women is that they do not believe they are good enough to put their case forward for initiatives, advancement, management and future aspirations.”

Asked to give us a closer snapshot of women’s traits that could determine their leadership achievements, Tester went back to things emotional.

“Their Emotional Intelligence (EI) is both their strength and their weakness,” he advises. “On one hand they have empathy, can engage in excellent social relations and enhance self esteem, but on the other hand their right brain (emotional side) can cloud that decision making process, especially when dealing with human resources issues.”

Tester says the classic researcher on EI, Daniel Goleman, highlighted the need for women to be able to harness their excellent EI to be effective in business. He made two big recommendations: first, understand yourself, your goals, intentions, responses and behaviours. Second, understand others and their feelings, but do not allow this to cloud your decision-making processes.

Stages of leadership

One woman who has talked the talk and walked the walk is Rosemary Howard, who nowadays is the executive director of the Australian Graduate School of Management’s Executive Programs at the University of New South Wales.

Starting out as a school teacher, she has been executive director of economic development with the New South Wales Government, before a 15 year stint in the corridors of power at Telstra, culminating as the CEO of Telstra’s subsidiary in New Zealand – TelstraClear. Compared to most women she has done it all and is still doing it!

Howard says she has a simple view on leadership that is based on four stages.

“Historically leadership has been around a directive position power phenomenon but as we have become smarter we have learnt that this is not effective for influencing outcomes and human behaviour,” she says. “We are now more interested in what I call personal or egalitarian leadership – telling people what to do is not the way to lead.”

Howard says her four stages of leadership is the new way for leaders. Stage one, she says, is about inspiring people about what is possible. The second is putting flesh on the bones of this vision and conducting a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis helps to make it all become real. This is fertile ground for teamwork and diversity and where brainstorming can bring out great results.

The third stage is about “the hard yards” of drawing up plans, measures and aligning peoples’ personal incentives and tasks within the organisation.

“This is time to say things six times to ensure everyone is bought in and engaged with each other,” Howard advises. “And the fourth stage is the refreshing and reviewing stage because the world is full of change and leaders have to be abreast of these changes.”

Talking the talk

On women’s style of leadership, Howard thinks in former times they copied men, but now they do it differently.

“Recently women have had the self-confidence to use their own style and people are giving them the room to do it their own way.”

She, like Tester, believes women have strengths in communication and EI, which she argues is critically important for perfecting egalitarian leadership. She thinks it gives woman an advantage over men in those businesses where customer service is an indispensable skill.

As word of advice to women wanting to make it to the top – Howard thinks playing the person in the workplace and not the issue, especially when it comes conflicts involving other female colleagues, can detract from your business reputation. And she recommends to seek training to learn how to better handle people in the workplace and feedback from colleagues is a great place start – though it takes courage.

Significantly, her new position offers short courses for executives where companies see that key employees have gaps or shortcomings and up-skilling is the name of the game. They even customise courses to achieve certain changes or outcomes desired by company leadership.

The bottom line for future female leaders is do a SWOT analysis, develop a plan, embrace the necessary changes for success and know that you inherently have the skills to make it as a leader. Believing in yourself is the starting point on the journey in all of our endeavours and no excuses! 

Top gun

Defining the challenges is one thing, but we want guidelines for solutions. Dr Tester offers the following advice for any woman keen to advance her career:

  • Complete a basic SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – analysis of where you are right now and where you want to be
  • Organise a strong mentor (preferably female and not a weak person!) who is a person that will challenge and guide you constructively
  • If there are gaps in your CV, engage a coach (matter expert) to up-skill you in these areas. Remember a coach and a mentor have different skills
  • Establish some realistic goal setting at both work and home – balance is essential
  • Get yourself fit and healthy. Include some regular exercise; this will build stoic behaviour, because you will need it
  • Establish a genuine network inside and outside your company
  • Establish a diary to write down your game plan and review regularly
  • Read current information in your area, keep abreast of what is happening, so you are informed.

Dr Tester says that having a mentor should be a high priority, but warns against having a mentor as a ‘crutch’, a mentor is a sounding board and to give advice, you have to make the decisions.

Mentors must be strong and able to be critical – women have to toughen up.

Use a mentor wisely and not too frequently. Use email, phone and face-to-face as mediums.

If you do not want to use a mentor, you need to be very aware and have someone in your company who can identify a career path.

Published on: Tuesday, February 08, 2011

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