Outside the Box

Opinion: Women are getting more leadership roles, but their bosses often are way behind

How employers can help women be less burned out at work — and less likely to leave

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Train managers to be inclusive leaders, allies and sponsors for high-talent women, and then hold those managers accountable for results.

“I’d never tell my manager that I’m miserable, burning out, feeling undervalued and exploring options outside the firm.  I’d look like I can’t handle it. I’m eager to move up and make a difference. Am I doing something wrong?”

This sentiment is often heard early in confidential coaching sessions. Two of this article’s authors are executive coaches and work with women as part of a high-potential women’s leadership development program (WLDP). The alarming element in this example is that her manager has no idea she is feeling this way. She has learned to keep her game face on, afraid to disappoint or look weak while frustrated at her lack of upward opportunities.

Management thinks all is well. They will be dumbfounded as she walks out the door.

Shifting from male-centric organizational cultures to egalitarian cultures where women can fully show up and own their voice will require companies to invest further in changing systems that perpetuate the status quo. This includes training managers to be inclusive leaders, allies and sponsors for high-talent women, and then holding those managers accountable for results.

In the absence of full managerial engagement and accountability, the work of mitigating systemic gender inequities falls on women. This is a missed opportunity on two fronts in the battle for gender equity: (1) accelerating not only the retention of high-talent women but also their advancement to significant leadership roles; and (2) elevating the existing skills of both front-line and senior managers.

It makes little sense for an organization to support high-talent women for leadership roles without taking full advantage of that investment by equipping the managers who will be essential to their successful advancement in the workplace. This is like a sports team investing only in their offense, while erroneously assuming the defense knows exactly how to play.

We know that managers carry the culture for the company as a whole and when managers invest in people management and DEI, women are happier, less burned out, and less likely to leave their position. For example, one crucial ingredient necessary to nurture leadership skills is receiving feedback on performance. The McKinsey Women in the Workplace Report 2022 found that just 60% of the women felt they received helpful feedback from their managers and only 40% felt their managers showed interest in their career and helped them manage their workload. 

Many graduates of WLDPs are frustrated when they return to the workplace only to discover that their own managers are unprepared to champion them. 

For these reasons, there is evidence that in multi-month WLDPs, women are better able to counter gendered headwinds while cultivating their leadership identity when they have their managers’ support and involvement.

Research shows that women in WLDP’s discover a sense of safety in sharing their ideas without judgment from male colleagues. These programs bolster self-confidence and willingness to try on new leadership behaviors. Participants are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, taking risks by experimenting with newly learned skills in a supportive environment.

When others affirm their actions and recognize their potential, the participant is encouraged to continue growing and more motivated to lead. She beings to own her leadership ability, which shapes the perception of others. For example, among alumni of the Her New Standard WLDP, 90% reported gaining more confidence regarding their leadership roles and contributions to their companies. Yet many graduates of WLDPs are frustrated when they return to the workplace only to discover that their own managers are unprepared to champion them. 

Prior to our shift to deliberately integrating managers into the Her New Standard (HNS) WLDP, we found many managers expressing an interest in supporting female talent while overestimating the extent to which they were already doing it. But we do see evidence that provides clarity on how to leverage managers’ motivation to support gender equity on their teams by closing the gaps in knowledge, awareness and skills. 

A roadmap for managers

Ideally, managers will contribute to greater participant involvement and learning, and make the WLDP more meaningful, by actively engaging before, during and after the program. 

Before the WLDP: Get clear about why this investment is being made and the participant’s leadership potential. One participant shared that her manager explained how the firm valued her, wanted to invest in her growth, and provided specifics on why she was nominated. His encouragement positioned the opportunity in a light that not only excited her, but also motivated her to “put her best foot forward”.

It’s not uncommon for participants to question why they were selected and wonder if it positively or negatively reflects their performance. When managers take the time to explain the potential they see and what they are hoping their team member will get out of the program, the difference in participants’ level of engagement and risk-taking is striking. 

During WLDP: Managers must create environments that reinforce women seeing themselves as leaders. Managers should give space for women to show up differently at work, allowing them to try on their new identity. They should meet with participants after every WLDP session to hear what they’ve learned and discuss how it can be applied in the workplace, as well as connecting them with the organization’s senior leaders.

For example, one manager connected a program participant to his network, which expanded her ability to access resources, mentorship and sponsorship. Even more importantly, these conversations with her expanded network quelled her fears about moving up and helped her see herself as a more senior leader.

After WLDP: After the program concludes, managers should ensure that the new skills and abilities are integrated into the organizational culture by seeking meaningful and visible opportunities (projects/roles) that contribute to a participant’s advancement. One manager continued to check in, empower, and expand his participant’s responsibilities. He made the case for her to be promoted to managing director. Now, she is the manager of a participant in a WLDP and uses her own experience as a model.

Here are four recommendations for managers with participants in WLDPs.

  • Be clear about why she was selected, what you want her to get from the program and what support she can count on from you.
  • Meet regularly during the program to hear her takeaways and help her apply them within your organization. Use these conversations as opportunities to learn, expand your gender intelligence, and show up as an inclusive leader. Collaborate with her to mitigate gendered headwinds to advancement.
  • Purposefully build her developmental network by connecting her to potential mentors and sponsors in the organization and be a vocal and public advocate for her taking on stretch assignments including promotion opportunities that leverage both her potential and demonstrated competence.
  • Give her ongoing career-related feedback when you see her stretching into new leadership behaviors or reverting to comfortable habits. Be sure to get feedback from her about how you are doing as an WLDP sponsor and inclusive leader.

WLDPs offer a proven strategy for accelerating progress on the advancement of women. But to get the most from these programs, organizational leaders should seize the opportunity to engage managers at key points on a woman’s journey through the program. This will equip leaders to be more effective allies, sponsors and inclusive leaders.

Ellen Keithline Byrne is an executive coach and co-founder of Her New Standard: The Playbook for Women Leaders, a leadership consulting firm focusing on advancing women in leadership, which designs boot-camps for Women Leaders on The Rise.  

Denise D’Agostino is an HR leader, executive coach and co-founder at Her New Standard: The Playbook for Women Leaders, a leadership consulting firm focusing on advancing women in leadership. D’Agostino is an instructor of Leadership Development at the Cornell ILR.

W. Brad Johnson is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. He is the coauthor of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the WorkplaceAthena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor WomenThe Elements of Mentoring, and other books on mentorship.

David G. Smith is an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. He is the coauthor, with W. Brad Johnson, of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace and Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.