Emma Loisel
Jan 3, 2017

How can women rise to the top of an organisation?

Emma Loisel, COO at The Exchange Lab, tackles gender diversity in the workplace and offers some personal advice to women looking to climb the career ladder.

Emma Loisel
Emma Loisel

One of the key subjects to come to the forefront in 2016 is the lack of women in leading positions across all sectors. Women represent 50 percent of middle management positions, however they account for less than 30 percent of senior executive roles. Why are so many women hindered at the upper management level and what must they do to reach the top?

Figures state that more women at the top of a business will increase performance significantly – now all you need to do is get there, which requires a proactive approach from both individuals and companies.

Much of the advice that women receive – “have more confidence”, “self-promote”, or “don’t ask, don’t get” – may not be enough to get you moving up in your organisation. With that in mind, here are some key takeaways and personal learnings from my life.

  1. Choose the organisation you work for carefully
    Look for companies that have females in senior positions and in your interviews ask if there are people working part-time or flexibly in the company. If they seem surprised, keep looking for your next role.
  1. Demonstrate that you understand how to contribute to your organisation’s financial goals and strategy
    The best kept secret for moving up the career ladder is having the ability to demonstrate to your company that you have Business Strategic Financial Acumen, as described by author Susan Colantuono, CEO & Founder of Leading Women on TedX. It is important that your manager knows you understand the key business drivers and all your decision making is underpinned by how it will contribute to the company’s financial success.

The diagram below from Colantuono’s presentation demonstrates how financial acumen is required to transition from middle management to an executive position.

Source: Leading Women, Susan Calontuoni, TedX Talk
  1. Decide where you want to go
    Don’t wait until your annual review to discuss your future; figure out for yourself what you want and then take this to your boss and agree how you will get there. Ask your boss for clear milestones and find key advocates in the business to support you.  Measure and present your progress to your manager every quarter or at a minimum every six months. Ask if you have reached your goals, and if not, what do you need to do to get there. Be patient; your goal is to be top of their mind as soon as a role opens up.
  1. Don’t shy away from an opportunity just because you haven’t done it before
    Stats show that men get hired on potential and woman on experience.  We need to start putting our hands up earlier and be prepared to take a risk. Accept that you might not always succeed but that making mistakes can get us closer to success.
  1. Don’t let ‘what they think’ impact your behaviour
    Career-oriented woman are often told they’re too forceful, while men are called leaders for the same behaviour. There is inherent bias ingrained from an early age but don’t let that stop you getting to where you want to be. You can’t always control how someone perceives you, but you can control if you take it on board or not.
  1. Embed into a company and be loyal
    Become a known and trusted member of the business. When you need something personal, whether this is flexibility, an intra-company transfer, moving to another country or going on maternity leave, it will help significantly by already having key stakeholder support and vital knowledge they will not want to lose. Ensure that you have strong male and female advocates to back you up.
  1. Accept that if you want to have a family - either yours or your partner’s career may take a different shape for a while
    If you have a family, and both you and your partner work, you will now have three jobs between you. You have to decide who the primary caregiver will be for your child. This can look different for every family, whether your partner takes that role, you have family who can help, or you hire additional support. However, even with the latter option, you may still want to put time that you would have previously put into your job into your new family instead.

    Before I had my family, I never noticed if I worked a 40 or a 60-hour week.  Now, an extra hour at work is an hour away from my family, which certainly focuses the mind. This is where flexibility, personal only to your situation, can help support you as you move between these two roles. Given that you have embedded yourself into your company, this conversation with your boss should hopefully be welcomed.
  1. If you want to work flexibly, find a role in your company that is easily measured 
    If you’re in the office nine-to-five, it is sometimes hard for managers to be confident that you are performing unless you have clear deliverables or goals in place. If you want to work part-time or on flexible hours, find a role that lets you easily set goals and demonstrate to your boss that you are over delivering. This could be defined project outcomes, sales targets or key work functions. Keep in mind that large team management roles or those that require a lot of travel can make flexibility and family-juggling harder.

Businesses are definitely making strides; The 30% Club in Hong Kong has launched an initiative to ensure that 20 percent of boards consist of women by 2020. Since 2010, the number of women on UK FTSE 100 boards has increased from 12.5 percent to 27 percent in 2016.

Having more women at the top creates a richer dynamic and increases the performance of organisations. It is also important that we create working environments that enable women to succeed in both work and family at all levels of companies. Forcing them to choose means everyone loses out. 

Emma Loisel is COO at The Exchange Lab.

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