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#LeadLikeAGirl: How Can Women Leaders Ignite Impact?

By Tacy Byham, Ph.D.

Tacy Byham Earlier this month, it’s a safe bet that most of us spent Sunday, February 7th watching Super Bowl 50. Why is it a safe bet? Because 111.9 million people tuned in—more than a third of the US population! And while the gridiron is exciting, I have to admit that the primary reason I turned on the TV that night is because of the commercials.

Last year, a fan-favorite commercial called #LikeAGirl was created by the feminine product company, Always. If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to watch it.

I’ve talked to many people about their reaction to the #LikeAGirl video and they say:

  • They feel sad because the video perfectly illustrates how confidence plummets for girls in puberty.
  • They feel frustrated with the stereotyping and the labeling of the term “girl” as something weak or even negative. It’s disheartening to consider that “girl” is becoming a 4-letter word.
  • They are motivated to reframe what it means to be “Like a Girl” as something positive, strong and powerful.

And, they felt inspired, like me. I was inspired to think about women, work, and leadership and to consider what it means to Lead #LikeAGirl—hence this blog posting, #LeadLikeAGirl.

It’s not really a woman’s issue, it’s a business issue

As we objectively take a close look at women and leadership, it is not really a woman’s issue, it’s a business issue. There’s a lot of undisputed data that shows having diversity in your organizations and female leaders pays off. Last year, DDI and the Conference Board collaborated on the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 (GLF), a survey of over 2,000 global organizations in all industries. We compared the top 20 percent high-performing organizations to the bottom 20 percent, and high-performing organizations have twice as many women leaders (37 percent vs. 19 percent).

GLF Graph

But, if you prefer a different source of proof, I offer you “Shark Tank” (which I am sure is your source for all things “business”). If you watch the “Shark Tank” TV show, you may know that the sharks are venture capitalists who provide funding to budding CEOs for their businesses. One of the sharks is Kevin O'Leary, also known as "Mr. Wonderful.” In April 2015, Kevin told Huffington Post interviewers that he's making more money with his women CEOs than with men!

There are more CEOs named John than women CEOs

Despite all of this evidence of the economic impact of greater gender diversity, the scary truth is that the representation of women in leadership, at all levels, hasn’t changed in a decade! In the United States, the percentage of college graduates is presently 57 percent women - thus, the pool of talented women entering the workforce is exceptionally rich (Source: National Center for Education, 2012). It makes sense that women comprise more than half of the people in the workforce. Yet, less than 20 percent of the C-suite executives are women and only 5 percent of CEOs are women. And worryingly, there are more CEOs named John than there are female CEOs.

What causes this lack of diversity higher up on the corporate ladder? I have heard and read discussions about men being better at the “harder” side of business, while women shine in the “softer” side.  However, data from DDI’s recently released High Resolution Leadership, examining 10 years of day-in-the life assessment data and 15,000 leaders, tells a different story. Our research shows that it is not a difference in skills that is holding women back. There are no statistically significant differences in gender scores on “harder” or “softer” skills.

Is it a matter of confidence?

According to The Confidence Code by Claire Shipman and Kitty Kay—both prominent broadcasters—confidence is a key differentiator. A quote from their book sums up the situation, “Men think they can and women think they can’t.

DDI’s own GLF research echoes this theme, with women tending to self-evaluate themselves as less effective leaders than their male peers.

While everyone needs confidence, women sometimes need a different voice in their head, helping them to declare themselves. A great voice is Sheryl Sandberg, who said, “Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that—and I will learn by doing it.’

Declare yourself early and often

Telling yourself to declare your readiness for the next step up is no more than a personal aspirational goal. Instead, I am a very practical person. I’d like to give you a few pieces of wisdom, collected by DDI’s own Women’s Networking Initiative, that should inspire you to make a change in the confidence gap for yourself, the women you mentor and lead, and the daughters you are raising from this generation of the workforce and in the future.

Body language matters

You probably have heard of Amy Cuddy. She is a researcher from Harvard who has examined the link between body language and confidence. Her Ted Talk is the second most watched TED video, and she has new book that was just released, Presence.

She found that adopting a confident Power Pose delivers almost instant self-assurance. She suggests that we put our hands on our hips, like Wonder Woman, and stand in this position for only a few minutes. This action of “making yourself big” for just two minutes before a difficult negotiation, a tough conversation, or a big presentation actually changes your brain. Power Posing helps to build courage, reduce anxiety, and inspire leadership.

This is important because according to HBR, 88 percent of executive men and women believe that to get to the C-Suite, you need to have Executive Presence. And, when you get there, you need it even more. (Source: Becky Shambaugh, It's Not a Glass Ceiling, It's a Sticky Floor)

The beauty is that beyond the instant confidence you build, the amazing thing is that this “fake” confidence accumulates over time into “real” confidence. The more we do something, the more we build it, like muscle memory. In other words, Power Posing goes beyond “fake it ‘til you make it.” Instead, it is “fake it ‘til you become it.”

Words matter


Beyond body language, we also know that words matter! There are phrases and language you can use to project confidence, which you maximize. (And other phrases that you may find yourself saying that inadvertently undermine the confidence you project to others.) These suggestions apply to anyone who wishes to project a voice that is more confident—but these tips are especially important if you are a leader.

The first suggestion is to mentally promote yourself. It’s a bit like the recommendation by Michael Watkins in The First 90-Days. For example, if you are about to have a sales call with an EVP, then you should pause and mentally promote yourself into the EVP position.  With this mental mindset, there are behavioral signs of adopting this attitude.  And, like Amy Cuddy said “fake it ‘til you become it,” I believe if you DECLARE YOURSELF, the more confident words and phrases will naturally become part of your speech pattern.

With a mental promotion, you’ll find yourself behaviorally using ‘I’ language. I run an exercise with women’s groups and ask them to do a mock interview for that promotional opportunity. In the interview, participants are asked, “Give me an example of a time when a team or group, of which you were the leader, accomplished its goals.”

Well, you’ll be amazed at how often in an interview a woman will use the pronoun “we” vs. ”I”. Women soften their impact this way, and weaken their ability to get that seat at the table.  But think about the exercise I outlined earlier in it, you were being interviewed and you were the leader!!! I know it may seem self-promotional and we don’t want to veer too far into arrogance, but we do need to declare our strengths and sell ourselves.

What should we stop saying? Here are three examples:

  • “I may be wrong here but…”
  • “Sorry to ask, but…”
  • “I’m not a math person, but…”

When you use phrases like this, you are undermining your idea before you even say it. You are apologizing your way into a conversation. This is a terrible way to get into a conversation! It’s like you are warning them before you ever get into it. To project confidence, we need to be a bit more strategic and purposeful.

Finally, there’s a sneaky little word that undermines confidence and sneaks into our language all the time—the word “just.” There is a difference between saying “just checking in on the report, how’s it going” vs. “what is the status of the report?”. “Just” is a permission word. In a way, it’s a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, and a shy knock on a door before asking, "Can I get something I need from you?”

As Ellen Petry Leanse observed in her blog post, Just” Say No, women use "just" three to four times more often than men. So, to project confidence, strike it from a phrase.  Doing so will almost always clarify and strengthen your message. 

What level do you want to reach?  Well then, think that way and you will talk that way.

Learn from Bill Murray

Bill Murray, a leadership legend, right?

GroundhogNot really, but he is the star of the Groundhog Day movie, from which we can all learn. In the movie, Bill Murray plays a weatherman who travels to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the annual emergence of the groundhog from its hole. He gets caught in a blizzard that he didn't predict and finds himself trapped in a time warp. He is doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right!

And, that’s what we should take from Bill Murray. To be successful, happy, and fulfilled at work and in life, it’s less about acting more like a man or more like a woman. It is about becoming a best-ever version of yourself, just as our weatherman reinvented himself.

Tacy Byham, Ph.D. is DDI's Chief Executive Officer.

Learn about DDI’s Women in Leadership offerings.

Pick up a copy of Tacy’s new book with co-author, Rich Wellins, Your First Leadership Job. The book includes an entire chapter on “A Woman’s First Leadership Job.”

Posted: 19 Feb, 2016,
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