The missing link for women in leadership

Visibility may be a missing link in promoting more women into senior leadership roles. In a surprise finding from a survey of Notable Women, a program undertaken by 55 senior female leaders at ANZ in Australia and New Zealand in 2014, increased visibility contributed to greater confidence in pushing for leadership roles.

"Once women become more visible, they report that they have more confidence and aspire to higher leadership roles."
Amanda Gome, Former head of digital and social media, ANZ

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These are early findings and it is a small sample but our survey found once the participating women began to be more visible - publishing stories, talking at events and engaging on social and digital media - they reported more confidence in pushing for higher leadership roles.

After the program, female leaders were more likely to put up their hands to speak as an expert (91 per cent) and 97 per cent are now actively looking out for visibility opportunities. All the women said they understand the need for a professional profile in a social world.

Like many good discoveries the Notable Women's program was not specifically designed to get women into senior leadership. It was simply designed to make them visible and get their voices heard in the business community.

Since I began to work as a business journalist decades ago, I've watched men use visibility and their relationships with media and influencers to build huge power and influence and create more opportunities for themselves and for others like them.

In many cases there seemed a direct link: the more confident and visible a man, the higher he went in the business ranks. High profile is used as an accolade in the business world.

Conversely, I had been shocked at the lack of women's voices and visibility in the business community and the negative impact on their careers and society at large. But I had no reason to think it might be connected with the dismal number of women in senior leadership roles.

Low profile

The obvious first step is to increase the number of female leaders running corporate Australia. To this end there has been a concerted push by many organisations to increase female leaders and dismantle barriers, expose unconscious bias and challenge work patterns that disadvantage women. These include bold initiatives introduced by companies like ANZ and Telstra to make all roles flexible.

The Male Champion of Change initiative from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has encouraged business organisations including event organisers and suppliers to make inclusive leadership the norm and openly question the lack of female representation.

Many companies now have proactive recruitment and promotion goals in order to increase the pipeline of female leadership and representation and innovative female leadership programs.

There have been some great initiatives like the Women For Media database developed by well-known board director and business woman Carol Schwartz to list prominent female business leaders so they can be easily contacted by media.

But still journalists complain women won't talk and event organisers are desperate when Male Champions of Change queries the lack of women on panels. Worse, some female business leaders complain the business media is full of men while rarely making the connection between their reluctance and the result.

Now there is a growing concern the same problems are arising on social media, where the major business influencers are men. Social media presented female leaders their best opportunity yet to build and control a professional profile, link to a wide range of global influencers and be discovered by journalists who hang around Twitter like it's a regular drinking hole.

When I arrived at ANZ a year ago, I met female leaders with 25 years' experience and with access to exclusive research produced by the bank. This was a journalist's dream. But who knew they were there?

Here at BlueNotes, publisher Paul Edwards had set a target: 40 per cent of content had to be by women or about women subjects or citing women experts. To achieve that goal takes determined and ongoing effort.

At ANZ the thinking was this: what if we enlisted Mike Smith, our CEO, to tell these women to do a program to show them how to be visible? There would be no debating the why – the focus would be on how.

The theory was that once they understood people wanted to hear from experts, especially female business leaders, started doing interviews and seeing their quotes in print, they would see the benefits and might even begin to enjoy it – just like a lot of men do.

Arms crossed

We set up the program and there were a lot of crossed arms in the first session. Here was a room of very busy women thinking "I've got thousands of staff, kids, ageing parents, demanding partners, pets, friends and community commitments," and now I was asking them to be visible.

But by the end, the women could all describe their own global expertise, understood how digital media had changed business and communications and had committed to a visibility plan that outlined what they would do in the next year.

They started to build their social profiles and connect with influencers within their areas of expertise. A fair bit of the session was spent challenging and reframing fears. Wasn't speaking boasting, some asked? Wasn't networking using people for your own advantage? Who wanted to hear from them, anyway?

Then they began to report back and share their success. They saw each other's stories. They talked about how they felt when they did a keynote or sat on a panel. By the second session the questions had changed.

By the end of the third session they had done more than 100 events – stories, keynotes, and panels - and that there have been hundreds more since then. But even better there was the mindshift. These women now realised their lack of visibility held them back from being sought after to speak in their industry and in traditional media.

My eureka moment was this: 81 per cent say they now feel more inspired and confident taking on more leadership positions. Maybe this skillset was a missing link holding them back from pushing through the glass ceiling.

There were other surprises. Most of the women hadn't met each other. Put a group of senior male leaders at the bank in a room and the backslapping, chatting about handicaps and offering each other opportunities would be deafening.

We had to add a 'how to network' session and 97 per cent say they are now better-networked with the women at the bank who can act as a support group. Ninety one per cent say they are helping younger women be more visible because they have the skills.

The theory

So here's my theory that we can test in the coming months and years: if we build the skills to help women be visible, to talk in front of their peers and leaders, it builds their confidence. They report getting good feedback and start seeking out more opportunities.

This also builds their circles of influence, gets them known for their expertise and builds their authority.

They are asked to do more events and begin to mix more with the powerful and influential. Their voices carry weight as they contribute to more conversations and their opinions are sought.

They are more confident to seek out higher positons and they are now on the radar of headhunters, industry leaders and internal stakeholders who see confident, articulate leaders who should be promoted.

It seems to make sense and as such, the Notable Women's Program has been extended to the middle layer of high-potential women at ANZ in a new program launched this week called Aspiring Notables.

Can we train women to start developing these skills at an earlier age? We think so. We have also started Notable Partners, partnering the Notable Women with the Aspiring Notables in order to build a stronger skills, support and opportunity network.

What do you think? Could visibility be the missing link? Is visibility the biggest barrier?

The Notable Women research was completed from 40 women between October and December 2014.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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