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There is one vital statistic missing from most of the discussions about what women need to do in order to become senior leaders – even though it is something totally within those women’s control.

Ninety per cent of CEOs are hired or promoted from line roles, yet women only occupy 20 per cent of those roles, according to the Women in the Workplace 2016 report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey.

Why are line roles so important?

Line roles are the ones with profit and loss (P&L) and/or operational responsibility. They are often the core work of an organisation.

Staff roles, on the other hand, provide important support for the line roles and include human resources, legal and IT. These are just as important for the success of the organisation, but they aren’t where an organisation typically looks for future CEOs.

Even so, it is the staff roles that are often selected by women – sometimes from the start of their careers and they also shift out of line roles to staff roles during their careers, according to the LeanIn and McKinsey report.

So, why are women opting out of line roles? The environmental inequities appear to be taking a toll. According to the McKinsey study, women in these line roles are less likely to feel that they have: the opportunity to participate meaningfully in meetings, access to challenging work assignments, a voice in important decisions and a sense their opinions and contributions are valued.

Environmental factors like these are difficult to measure and regulate. They are different than the “hygiene” factors of fairness of hiring practices, senior level support and support for flexibility.

Yet it is these environmental factors that drive behaviours and career choices.

The Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get

This reminded me of Susan Conlantuono’s 2013 TedTalk “The career advice you probably didn’t get”.

The people getting promoted beyond the middle layers of an organisation are those who are able to prove their business, strategic, and financial acumen.

You absolutely have to prove that you are smart, hard-working, resilient, great with customers, confident, good with people, and well connected. This will get you into and make you very successful in middle management roles.

But to get to the really senior positions, you also need to demonstrate your effective management and leadership across strategy and finance, which is much harder to do in roles without P&L and operational responsibility.

How to make the right choices

Take a moment to really think about your career path and choices. How are you framing them? In my experience, people often think about these choices as either/or:

  • “I can take that job OR I can maintain my work-life balance”
  • “I can apply for that job now OR I can wait until I have gained more relevant experience”
  • “I can be a good leader OR I can be a good Mum”

The way these statements are worded seems to imply a narrow choice. What if, instead, we change that “OR” for an “AND”?

What if we change our language to start seeing more possibility and less limitation?

Researching Possibilities

By changing the way you talk to yourself (and others) about the choices you face, you change the way you think about those choices.

  • Ask yourself, “what are the key questions I need answered?”
  • How am I framing them…as ANDs or ORs?
  • Seek advice and counsel from your network of male and female mentors and associates.
  • Set yourself a goal to ask 20 people your questions.
  • Step back and evaluate the results…which ones resonate and energise you?
  • Which ones get you what is most important both now AND for the future?

You might just be surprised at how much is within your control.

If you are interested in exploring these topics more, Stephenson Mansell Group runs Perspectives on Leadership for Women in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

For more information on 2017 dates please visit our website.

Best wishes,
Janet Horton

About the author: Janet Horton has more than 25 years of leadership, business development and management experience, including 10 years in senior leadership positions. Her industry experience spans across IT, financial services, government, education and SME and includes work in Australia, the US and across Asia. She also started and ran her own organisational change consultancy for five years and served as Executive Coach and Senior Facilitator to senior and high potential women for Women and Leadership Australia – an organisation dedicated to supporting a higher representation of women throughout the Australian workforce and broader community.

Janet has designed Perspectives on Leadership for Women based on her extensive experience. She facilitates programs for senior leaders and their teams. 

Janet has a Master’s degree in Organisational Coaching from Sydney University and is an active member of the University of Sydney Coaching and Mentoring Association.


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