Is Women’s Leadership Talent Hiding in Plain Sight?

Recent allegations about gender inequity and sexual harassment in the technology industry have called into question whether companies are doing enough to protect and promote women. A common refrain I often hear is “why am I being disregarded or completely iced out of an opportunity?” While some women speak out, there is a silent majority that benefits only from incremental change. The problem is that unlike social and political issues, which often garner vocal response, the phenomenon of being silenced and disregarded is eclipsed in a work setting in which women are regularly left out and left behind.

A September 2016 report from McKinsey & Co. and Lean In, which was founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, shows that women are still struggling to advance in the workplace. The report found that “promotion rates for women lag behind those of men, and the disparity is the largest at the first step up to manager. As a result, far fewer women end up on the path to leadership.” The statistics are startling: “for every 100 women promoted to manager, 130 men are promoted.”

Why is this disparity still happening? Part of the problem is a stubborn perception of leadership. Determining who has leadership potential is often based on an image of those at the top of the organization, who are mainly white and male. Hiring managers need to look beyond the obvious suspects and broaden the leadership pipeline by digging a little deeper to find “hidden leaders”. Finding and promoting those leaders means that an organization will be led by people who think differently and who can draw upon their unique experiences – both personal and professional – to help guide an organization’s future success.

Mining the organization for hidden talent represents a departure from traditional approaches that many organizations use to reward the strongest employees. This old-school, Darwinian approach means that organizations use criteria to evaluate employees that mirror those in existing power positions. This type of evaluation includes questions such as: do potential leaders have similar educational backgrounds? Did they start at the bottom and work their way up the corporate ranks in a predictable path? Are they within the preferred age range? The problem with this approach is that it often rewards white males at the expense of women and minorities whose path to the top may look different. As a result, many women, especially women of color, feel under-utilized and unsatisfied as they are continually passed over for promotions and opportunities.

In order to have a more diverse and well-rounded set of leaders, organizations need to develop evaluation criteria that allow and encourage hiring managers to look beyond the usual suspects. One way to find hidden talent is for managers to develop innovative programs that allow individuals to showcase their leadership capacity. The McKinsey article cites an example of this, highlighting companies that use “employee surveys to determine which individuals play vital and influential roles in helping the organization to function effectively, regardless of their official positions. Once leaders know who these people are, they can assess their broader potential.”

Encouraging managers to broaden their lens and look outside the box of typical leadership potential is half the battle. The other half is encouraging employees who may feel stymied by a manager or are hesitant to put themselves forward to find ways to identify leadership opportunities and insert themselves. If you identify as a “hidden leader” here are four things you can do to position yourself to be discovered and recognized:

· Hone your leadership skills through volunteer work outside your organization. This could include joining a board of directors or using your management skills to help a non-profit organization. Once you get started, position yourself to take on more leadership responsibilities in these roles. · Become known in your company for being a super connector - someone who has a great internal network and knows how to leverage these relationships to solve problems, speed up processes, and get work done.

· Let others know that you understand the context of your work - educate yourself on the bigger trends impacting your industry and business and then use this knowledge in your conversations with those above you. This will showcase your ability to gather multiple perspectives and apply these insights to business challenges.

· Volunteer to lead an effort that enhances the company internally. Internal changes are highly visible and will positively impact your organization as well as your personal reputation.

While hidden leaders are easier to identify in flatter organizations that have less bureaucratic structure, with a concerted effort all managers can – and should – identify hidden talent. That means looking for employees who bring out the best in others by using emotional intelligence and trust building, who are effective problem solvers and are self-directed. These employees most likely won’t have taken the same career path and won’t have the same personal background. They won’t necessarily look and sound alike, but they will make your organization stronger and more successful.

Dr. Bernice Ledbetter is Practitioner Faculty of Organizational Theory and Management at Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business and Management where she chairs the M.S. in Management and Leadership degree program. Her research and teaching interests focus on values-based leadership, peace leadership, and gender. Dr. Ledbetter founded the Pepperdine Center for Women in Leadership to empower and advance women in the workplace.

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