Alone among Men:

Women in Leadership Transition

German companies are in flux: The EU Commission and the EU Parliament have decreed that the approximately 5,000 listed companies in the European Union must fill 40 percent of the seats on their supervisory boards with women by 2020. A number of German companies have already committed themselves to advancement of women. Clearly, women are increasingly pushing for leadership positions“ and this naturally leads to questions such as what the gender-specific differences in leadership transition are, what topics are especially relevant when coaching female executives and what approaches have made things easier for women in leadership transition.

Every leader in transition has a role,
women always have two

The topic of leadership transition is multi-faceted“ regardless of whether the leader is a man or a woman. There are different types of leaders in transition, including

  • Internal promotions: They have to "swim ahead" of the crowd and position themselves as leaders in order to be acknowledged in their new role.
  • Managers coming in from other companies: As outsiders, their challenge is to integrate themselves into a new culture and network in their new company.
  • Implementers of change: Their task is to reduce resistance and motivate others to actively participate.
  • High potentials: They must develop confidence and charisma.
  • Expats: They are confronted with reflecting on and expanding their cultural identity. Women always have an additional role as well: As women in a men's world, they encounter stereotypical perceptions and have more difficulty exercising their power than men do.

A new task“ and lots of hot spots

No matter if man or woman, all leaders in transition must cope with several of the following challenges in the first 100 days in their new position:

  • Expectations are immediately viewed as tasks to be fulfilled or“ in particular when they remain unspoken“ ignored. However, carefully examining the expectations placed in the new leader can release just the right energies needed to get things done and call the status quo into question.
  • Key relationships are not perceived on an emotional level. The goal is to understand working relationships not just from a purely objective standpoint as components of the organizational chart, but to transform them into sustainable contacts useful for the leader's own position.
  • Important networks are lacking, the new leader is isolated. Leaders in transition must accept the fact they need to build relationship capital“ despite all the challenges on the business level.
  • Scope of power and ability to exert influence in the leader's own position are overestimated, the leader in transition behaves in a dominant manner. The type of power and influence that make an executive successful are only established once the new role is credibly filled and trust has been built.
  • Assignments are formulated in an unclear or inconsistent manner, the "new leader" is sent off in the wrong direction. All leaders in transition are faced with the task of defining their own mission and acquiring the necessary support for it in the organization.
  • The business situation is difficult and poses significant challenges for the leader in transition. In addition to having to cope with the immediate business tasks on hand, the executive is in danger of losing the strategic perspective“ instead of using the current situation as a lever for necessary changes.
  • The company's politics and system are hard to grasp. In the first 100 days in the new position, the executive has little time for learning how everything is interconnected. However, if the leader in transition is able to successfully integrate him- or herself into the system, he or she creates an important basis for personal success.
  • The executive is lacking awareness of his or her own identity, role and responsibility. Especially in the starting phase, it is only natural that the executive has not yet fully developed a personal interpretation of his or her own role. Not until has that happened, however, is the executive able to draw on his or her entire personality to develop personal impact and persuasive power.

Pride and prejudice: what is different
for women in leadership transition

During our many years of experience coaching women of different generations and hierarchy levels undergoing leadership transition, it has become apparent that the following topics are relevant specifically for women:

Stereotypical perceptions
Women remain a minority in leadership roles. They maneuver in a men's world and are compared with men who are much more familiar with these spheres as a result of their socialization. Women are not just labeled with "typical" female characteristics such as social competence and emotional intelligence“ these traits are also implicitly expected of them. If these demands remain unmet, the woman will fail. Because women in management boards are regarded as a symbol of modernity, they find themselves in the limelight and are evaluated, among other things, based on their looks. Once they have reached a management level, however, many women become desensitized to stereotypical perceptions of themselves. They assume that they are evaluated based on their performance alone.

Proximity, distance and taboos
The proximity-distance relationship between men and women is different than the relationship between persons of the same sex“ the physical relationship at least is always more distanced. Employees who report directly to young women in management positions offer to use first names more often than these women would like. On the other hand, male supervisors use business-like last names with women underneath them in the hierarchy, while addressing male peers by their first names. This results in irritation and a feeling of exclusion. Women in leadership roles are confronted with stereotypical perceptions and animosity. Men have more orientation points available to them than do women.

Dual role: career and family
Many companies are now increasingly anchoring a good balance of work and family life in their corporate strategies, yet women are still torn between conforming to traditional women's roles and the courage to articulate their personal needs. Oftentimes, women forgo the informal, network-building process of sharing thoughts and ideas with their colleagues to be with their family instead. If they accord priority to their job when planning their time, they are left with a guilty conscience.

Belonging: insider/outsider
A woman as the first and only female executive in a group of men will always stand out like "a red marble on a board full of black marbles". Women may first enjoy this, but on closer examination they feel overheard or overseen. They find themselves having to choose between behaving in a socially desirable manner or "acting like a man".

Animosity
When women are a minority in leadership positions, they are frequently confronted with envy. Many men do not believe they should have to compete with a woman.
Other women resent one of their own breaking traditional roles. Sometimes the woman leader even encourages this isolation: She refuses to tolerate any other women in her proximity out of fear that she might not receive as much attention.

Mission nearly impossible
We meet significantly more women than men who have taken on seemingly unsolvable tasks in their leadership transition. Due to the social competence attributed to them, women are expected to be drivers of cultural change. Or they are given unpopular jobs. Often, women do not learn that they were the "second choice" until later.

A case study: "The underestimated
woman in a mine field"

At the start“ says a former colleague of Eva Schneider (not her real name)“ he thought of her as a "wallflower", but at the same time everyone knew that she was a "gray eminence" in her area of specialty and could be very tenacious in disputes.

In the midst of the financial crisis, Eva Schneider became the first woman to be appointed a management board member at a traditional financial services company. As CFO, her job was to manage global financial operations“ a position that required a great deal of assertiveness in dealing with lobbyists, analysts and possible resistance from political circles. In addition, Eva Schneider was expected to clean up the aftermath of a corruption scandal triggered by her predecessor. Her new team had not had its own leader for a year. It was therefore necessary to create a new home for her team and establish trusting relationship to her colleagues on the management board.
Cultivating one's own identity and individual potential instead of becoming one of the crowd“ this is where coaching from fgi comes in.

Eva Schneider was confident in her specialist competence, but had doubts about her assertiveness“ both within the company as well as vis-á-vis the external target groups. In the past, she had earned great respect through tenacity, hard work and integrity. She realized, however, that she now needed to acquire additional leadership competences and set the appropriate tone, even in the onboarding phase. In order to do this, she first had to become aware of her own identity and potential.

This is where fgi comes in

Once they have established their place in the system, women often find it difficult to assert themselves with new ways of thinking and acting. In coaching, we take a closer look at expectations, "invisible" dependencies and the values and motives behind them“ enabling the executive to articulate their decisions with confidence. First, we helped Eva Schneider gain an overview of the business-related and emotional challenges she was facing. Together with her coach, she developed a systematic approach for clarifying the expectations placed in her and her mission.

 

It was crucial that Eva Schneider did not fall back into her old behavioral pattern ("busy bee") but instead delegated work to others and exuded a sense of confidence. We attained this goal by means of an impact analysis in which Eva Schneider reflected on her self-image and the image others had of her. Simply analyzing the seating plan for the management board and when and how she brought up what she had to say there made it clear to Eva Schneider how power relationships can be interpreted and influenced.

 

In order to establish trust and discover the unwritten rules in the company, she placed more emphasis on the relationship level when talking with her staff and peers“ without getting personal. Gradually, Eva Schneider was able to openly address stereotypes and break down gender-specific reservations.

 

Dr. Beate Heller

Rüdiger Schulz

 

The authors

The modern language philologists and organizational psychologist Dr. Beate Heller is a partner with the management consultancy fgi FischerGroupInternational. She specializes in top executive coaching, talent management and corporate mentoring.

 

Rüdiger Schulz is a partner with the management consultancy fgi FischerGroupInternational. The graduate psychologist and business economist has been supporting executives in companies from a wide range of sectors in their development process for many years now. His areas of specialty are leadership transition, executive coaching and support for organizational changes.


Contact: info@fgi-mail.com, www.fgi-web.com

No matter if man or woman: On the way to the top, all leaders in transition must cope with a number of different challenges.
The EU wants to see the share of women in supervisory boards increase from 17.6% to 40%.
Women in leadership roles are confronted with stereotypical perceptions and animosity. Men have more orientation points available to them than do women.
No matter where they are on the corporate ladder, women with children still find themselves in a quandary when trying to unite career and family.
Cultivating one's own identity and individual potential instead of becoming one of the crowd“ this is where coaching from fgi comes in.