Mastering management skills is not what gets women promoted to a leadership role. You can be forgiven for thinking it is.
I’ve seen it happen time and again — a woman shows interest in becoming a leader within her organisation, and she’s sent on a leadership course (or two or three) where they teach you about difficult conversations or negotiating skills or if you’re lucky the more recently popular emotional intelligence. And that’s great.
But take a look around you.
If the managers in your organisation are anything like a few too many of the leaders in mine, you might have noticed that they’re not all that good at having conversations, difficult or otherwise, and they see emotional intelligence as an oxymoron.
So if they got promoted without mastering leadership skills, why can’t you? You can.
Solving the problem of unrepresentative management
You’ve probably heard that there are many biases that are working against women getting promoted, yet women do get promoted every day. So what is it that gets them there when so many others get stuck in the doing roles, rather than the leading roles?
There are two main things I’ve noticed.
Either they got there because they naturally fit within the current system, or they recognised the rules that are at play in large organisations, and played them to their advantage. If you’ve been working to get promoted to that next level for a while now and getting frustrated with the amount of time it’s taking, I’m willing to bet you don’t fall into the first category, and that’s not a bad thing.
Now I know that if you’re anything like me and most of the clients I work with, then playing a game to get promoted doesn’t sit well with you. And that’s what will make you a good leader.
Thankfully I’m not talking about playing games. I’m talking about knowing the rules of the game, and using that knowledge to successfully climb the ladder, and avoid the snakes — so to speak.
Imagine playing a board game like chess, where half the players know the rules, and they just happen to work to their strengths, and the other half are not even aware there are any. They just know the king needs to be the last piece standing.
Who do you think will win? Is it a fair game? Absolutely not.
But you can either keep getting better at what you think the game might need, like adding the pieces to the board, or quickly moving those pieces from one side to another, or you can learn the rules of the game so you know what skills matter and adapt your approach to fit.
The good news is that, unlike chess, once you achieve the goals in this game, you get to start adding in your own rules, and better still, you can choose to make those rules transparent and fair for all.
The rules of the game
So what are the rules, and how can you authentically use them?
There are a lot of unwritten rules in business, and some of them apply only to women. I’ve distilled them down into three key pillars that will help you get your leadership role.
1. Become the leader to get the role, not get the role to become the leader
This may feel like a difficult one. I used to ask friends rhetorical questions like “How am I meant to get experience as a leader if they won’t give me a chance in the role?” No one had an answer. Yet there is one. And it took me a long time to realise this. But leadership is a noun, not a verb. It’s the state of being a leader, a being word, not a doing word. And who you choose to be at any given moment is entirely up to you.
This means working on becoming the best you, the highest level of you, and continuing to grow from there. A great by-product of ‘levelling up self’ as I call it, is it also helps with a concept we don’t discuss enough – getting to a leadership role isn’t meant to be easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it. So levelling up helps you stay in the game. The last thing you want is to be beaten by the game itself.
2. It’s who you know more than what you know
The age-old adage has never been more true, despite attempts to make it seem as if everything is decided by merit. To play to this rule means focusing on connecting with others who will both help you on your journey and be helped by you as part of your journey.
3. There’s no glory in being the best-kept secret in your organisation
This means showing up to stand out most authentically for you. It’s not about bragging. You can stand out by giving others credit where it’s due. It’s also not about being overly humble.
I have seen these three rules play out, again and again, both with my leadership journey and that of my clients — levelling up self, linking with others, and leveraging visibility.
Now you know these rules and you start to adapt to them without shifting who you are at your core, you tend to stand out from the crowd. You also become what I call a Next Level Leader — someone who others want to follow because they are drawn to you, rather than because they are contracted to.
Now you have a choice. You can keep focused only on mastering the skills that aren’t moving you forwards, or you can work on the three rules that help you stand out from the crowd.