Women: visibility a key to success

Without visibility and communication skills women, unless taken under the wing of a top male powerbroker, have almost no chance of progressing to the top levels of business.

That's a harsh but unfortunately accurate assessment of today's corporate world.

"The saddest moment? When I see regret in their eyes as they realise what invisibility has cost them and the opportunities they have missed."
Amanda Gome, Former head of digital and social media, ANZ

But once taught to be visible, female executives can find the benefits unexpectedly widespread including gaining sales, boosting their performance, fuelling ambition and receiving promotions.

I arrive at these conclusions after receiving the latest research results from ANZ's Notable Women program - and 25 years of studying and writing about men and women's business career progression.

The research results, albeit from a small group, challenge the current and fashionable assertion in the debate on women in boardrooms that it is entrenched systems which need to change.

And women are fine the way they are. They're not.

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The Notable Women program was a launched in August 2014 to teach 50 senior female leaders a small suite of skills in order to turn them into socially engaged leaders, part of ANZ's quest to be a leading social bank. In a social age a modern leader is a visible leader with a myriad of ways to be seen and connect with customers, staff and stakeholders to build relationships, influence and insights.

We also wanted to ensure a diversity of voices as too often the media is dominated by male voices. As the WMC report Status of Women in the US Media says, whoever reports a story often determines what the story is.

This applies equally to keynotes, panels and events. Former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick's Male Champions of Change, which includes ANZ CEO Mike Smith, have pledged not to speak on male only panels and yet many panel organisers report finding it difficult to get executives to appear.

New research from Global Media Monitoring Projects, with support from UN Women, says women make up about 50 per cent of the general population but only 24 per cent of the persons heard, read about or seen in television, radio and news, exactly the level of the 2010 report. This has crossed over into digital platforms, where only 26 per cent of people in internet news, stories and tweets combined are women.

Cynthia Balogh, who runs Austrade's Women in Global Business, says it is the “bane” of her life. “I ring female entrepreneurs who have built very successful businesses to talk at an event and they say 'umm, do you think I am qualified?”

The problem is many women choose invisibility. At the start of the NW program, research showed most of the high-potential executives chosen did almost no speaking events, were not active professionally on social media and were very resistant to the idea of being visible. They were not in the business conversations, wouldn't appear on external panels, weren't even appearing on our own business forum BlueNotes.

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The reasons the women gave will be familiar to most professional women. I hear them repeated again and again in many of the sessions and talks we have done for CEOs and non-executive directors outside the bank.


As you can imagine, it is not easy moving such an entrenched mindset. But when it happens it is by far the most moving part of Notable Women. When asking the women on why they don't want to be visible, they open up and start to honestly explore the question. When challenged on each of the assumptions, they soon admit the assumptions are nonsense, express astonishment they held these notions and they had been continually reinforced by people around them.

NW participants said they couldn't be visible because:

  • I will get into trouble
  • I will say the wrong thing
  • Who wants to listen to me?
  • I don't know what to talk about
  • I will be taken out of context
  • Being visible is boasting
  • Social media is personal not professional
  • Social is a minefield
  • I am too busy doing my day job really well. Go away.

They begin to question where these notions come from, why they think like this - and why men don't. And it dawns on many: the conditioning stems from childhood. She's a good girl, is regular praise from a mother and father. This extends to the office where being invisible means you fit in. But you don't get far.

It is reinforced at the office, particularly in male-dominated industries like finance and media. While many women are naturally good communicators, they never learn the specific skill set that builds power, influence and networks in business and that men happily share and pass onto each other.

The saddest moment for me usually comes at the end of the second session when I see regret in their eyes as they realise what invisibility has cost them and the opportunities they have missed. “I should have been doing this many years ago,” they murmur.

That's the start of the journey. The female leaders then learn, build and practice visibility skills. For some it is extremely uncomfortable as it challenges and threatens their very identity. For others, it is as if they have been unleashed, so quickly do they take their natural strengths and skills, apply it to visibility and soon become notable. For a rare few, who had been doing some events but feeling they shouldn't, it gives them permission to go for it.

A year on from the start of Notable Women, here are the results.

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Socially engaged leaders

All the Notable Women are on social media and most are active on Twitter and LinkedIn. They have a great professional profile online and 84 per cent say they have a clear professional social strategy.

About 90 per cent regard themselves as “leaders in their field” - a huge shift in mindset from “I have a job”. They are influencers in their areas of expertise (81 per cent) use social media to engage with staff and build influence with them (78 per cent) and are building social capital with stakeholders (78 per cent). Nearly all know how to stay safe online (95 per cent).

Becoming top communicators

From almost no events, these women have done more than 400 external panels, delivering keynotes, appearing in traditional media and online media, writing for BlueNotes, presenting at town halls and doing customer and staff presentations.

In November, ANZ's Notable Women was recognised for its outstanding results by the Asia-Pacific Communications Awards at a gala event in Hong Kong.

It was the latest international award the program has received for internal and change communication.

And guess what? From the mostly cross, grumpy group that showed up for the first session insisting they hated being visible, 86 per cent now say they enjoy being visible and having a profile. They say in the past year they have built resilience and can cope better with negative feedback.

All of them say their profile has increased online and their communication skills, including presenting and writing, have improved in the past year. They feel more confident creating content for events (78 per cent) and more confident presenting at events (81 per cent).

Once their visibility increased, most of them (78 per cent) report being contacted by event organisers to speak on their areas of expertise. And 36 per cent have increased their profile with journalists.

Advancing business goals

Here is the biggest surprise – just how much being notable has helped them achieve their business goals. About 90 per cent say they are advancing their business goals through increased professional visibility and 95 per cent say they feel a lot more connected to staff, customers and stakeholders while 97 per cent have used social media for insights and ideas that help meet business goals.

It is also boosting revenue. A quarter of the women saying they have gained new customers and almost half saying they have met potential customers as a result of social media and increased visibility. Most (76 per cent) say they have used social media and visibility to deepen relationships with existing customers. Meanwhile being visible and improving presentation skills helped 49 per cent meet their KPIs.

Advancing female leader's careers

It gets better. Being visible has given the women the confidence to get to the top. Nearly 80 per cent describe it as a game changer, with 71 per cent saying they now have the skills and confidence to aspire for higher leadership positions and 73 per cent saying it has helped them strive harder to get to the top. Best of all nearly 20 per cent say they have been promoted in the past year and Notable Women helped them get there.

Advancement of other women, changing culture

Typically, the Notable Women want to share what they have learnt. About 92 per cent say they are using their training to help other women at the bank be more successful and almost 50 per cent are using Notable Women to help customers and stakeholders be more successful. All up the majority of the women (87 per cent) say they have started or are involved in initiatives to help other women build their visibility, careers, social skills and profile.

All of the Notable Women surveyed say the training has helped raise the profile of women in business and banking. Of course men also need to be challenged and taught skills to counter bias and systems need to transform – and at a deep level.

There is plenty of impetus driving change with gender equality especially in executive ranks. It is an emerging driver of company reputation, according to a new report by the Economist Intelligence Unit. And the issue is of huge concern to millennials who simply can't fathom why only 12.5 per cent of the top 100 leaders in the world's largest companies are women.

But just say a miracle occurs and systems transform and bias dies out in the next few years. Unless we accept leaders can be invisible and still get to the top which aint going to happen in a social age, we need a lot more women accepting the challenge to change and become, not just visible, but notable.

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

editor's picks

05 Aug 2015

Stop asking women to change

Pam Rebecca | Former General Manager of Digital ANZ

Acceptable wisdom seems to be that for women to be taken seriously as business leaders they should only speak on business issues and studiously avoid addressing the so called work-life balance or the challenges of juggling a career and a family.

10 Oct 2014

Why being visible matters to women in leadership

Suzette Corr | Group General Manager Institutional Human Resources, ANZ

I would rather break a leg than do self-promotion. So when I was invited by ANZ CEO Mike Smith to take part in a new program called Notable Women, I felt a bit uncomfortable. Even the title made me cringe.

21 Aug 2014

Business women are missing in action

Amanda Gome | Former head of digital and social media, ANZ

"If I hadn't made that first step to have some visibility, I'm not sure that I would have ever become Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner." - Elizabeth Broderick