Just 5: Cultivate Women Who Lead

Think about the best leaders you know. Who were the first five people who came to mind? If none were women, you have work to do. If your list included women, you still have work to do!

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, Dirty Dancing (1987)

Although women are 51% of the population, they are significantly underrepresented in corporate leadership. Per several sources including McKinsey & Company and Lean In, women currently represent 17–20% of all C-suite leaders within U.S. companies. In fact, the disparity is so bad, there are more CEOs named John or David in the S&P 1500 than there are women CEOs overall.[1]

Those disparities reflect hundreds of years of policy and culture in America and while the numbers have improved, change has been slow — very slow, especially for women of color.

Those of us in formal leadership positions can speed up the change. In fact, several men have recently asked me how they can support women in leadership roles. Beyond being compelled by diversity data or “the right thing to do,” be inspired by women’s unique contributions and be open to what we all can learn from the best of them. When we truly value how women lead, we can then become equipped to coach and mentor women in leadership roles.

When I think of women leaders I have admired throughout my life (including my grandmother), I notice they share five characteristics.

1. They are incredibly self-aware, confident, and settled in their spirit. This means they know how phenomenal they are and they have no illusions about their shortcomings. In fact, they are transparent about both.

2. They lead unapologetically. In Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze’s character said “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” Well, these leaders never put themselves in a corner unless it is for a strategic purpose. They thrive up front.

3. They are dot connectors. They see and make unusual connections between people and information. Through those connections, they consistently achieve outcomes and goals. They find new solutions to old problems.

4. They seek and settle into their discomfort. As Ariel Investments’ Mellody Hobson said, “If we can learn to deal with our discomfort and just relax into it we’ll have a better life.”[2] Women I admire believe discomfort makes them better leaders so they push past their comfort zones.

5. They are masters of plain talk. These women are emotionally and mentally bigger than any risk that comes from speaking their minds and they consider it riskier to hold their tongue. Somehow, in the midst of plain talk they remain strategic and impactful.

Few of the women I reference above had C-suite positions. In fact, most never saw a C-suite. As important as the title or the C-suite designation is, their ability to be effective and formidable leaders at all stages of their lives was more important.

Whether you are a man or woman, to cultivate women leaders, keep these five steps in mind.

1. Practice equitable leadership.

Equity means that all people have fair opportunities to reach their full potential. Identify and play to a woman’s strengths. Every leader should be developed beyond traditionally male-centric leadership models. Most cookie-cutter approaches to leadership development skew towards traits and competencies that favor men. Create spaces that value gender differences in leadership styles and leverage gender differences to achieve better outcomes. If you don’t know what those differences are, google it!

2. Value women who lead because they are women, not in spite of it.

Today more than ever, leadership requires influence that comes from the ability to read and respond to people strategically as opposed to influence that comes from formal power. While a leader may not have the necessary authority or access to act, they will inevitably need to influence people who do. This is a great reason to engage women who often have innate abilities to read people and situations, discern intangible value, mitigate risks through relationships, and then influence stakeholders accordingly. Trust them to be influential and pay close attention. There is a good chance you will learn something!

3. Watch your language and theirs.

The language you use when working with women has the potential to support or hinder their leadership (e.g., gender-biased or deficit-based). This applies to how those women are spoken about when they are not in the room and the language used when working with them directly. While subtle, adjectives used to describe women can unintentionally perpetuate stereotypes (e.g., passionate=emotional). In addition to what you say, pay attention to their language. Coach women to speak declaratively as opposed to using non-declarative filler phrases such as “sort of” or “kind of.”

4. Translation Please…

When developing women leaders, one of the most valuable things you can do is translate culture, situations, and the environment through the lens of gender. This requires sharing and helping them identify political nuances. Gender identity is critical to power and group dynamics and navigating those dynamics is required for any woman who leads to be successful. When appropriate, provide guidance on how they could or should engage in a situation given their gender and the gender(s) of others involved.

5. Dress Rehearsal

Issue growth challenges and create opportunities for rehearsal, before the big show. Generally, when doing something challenging and new, women thrive when they have opportunities to engage in visualization, role-play, and practice. You will find this to be true for many successful woman in leadership roles. When possible, encourage and participate in dress rehearsal to ensure they are ready for the main stage.

Now let’s go back to the beginning.

Think about the best leaders you know. Who were the first five people who came to mind? If none were women, you have work to do. If your list included women, you still have work to do! While there are dozens of steps you can take, start with Just 5.


[1] Wolfers, J. (2015, March, 2). Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/upshot/fewer-women-run-big-companies-than-men-named-john.html?_r=0

[2] Hobson, M. (2014, May). Color Blind or Color Brave. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/mellody_hobson_color_blind_or_color_brave/transcript?language=en