The Creation of a Women’s Leadership Program

Have you been told you’re emotional, bossy, or too nice? These words were on the cover of the Harvard Business Review magazine from September 2013 and inspired me to create a six-month Women’s Leadership Program for 25 women that was over two years in the making.

The article, Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers, by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb, was the foundation of the program and focused on the biases that still hold women back from leadership positions. The research shows, for example, that behavior considered assertive in a man is seen as aggressive in a woman. The most important thing we can do to move the path forward is for women and men to discuss these challenges and get at the embedded biases and assumptions that hold women back from seeking leadership positions.

The Women’s Leadership Program (WLP) was designed to actively engage women leaders within the organization to enhance the leadership skills and knowledge they have already acquired and to expand their circle of influence throughout the company.

Initially, we focused on opportunities that help to create a safe space and provide each woman with the opportunity to receive support and feel empowered. The safe space becomes the “well” and allows the women to address what leadership purpose means to each of them. These safe space conversations can then expand throughout the organization once the female participants explore ways to enhance their “leadership identity.” In other words, rehearse and practice ways to become the leader they’d like to be. At that point, men should be invited to join the conversation and hear what challenges women face along the way of their leadership quest.

The program consisted of administering the Birkman leadership assessment and discussing within the cohort what their strengths, motivators and stress inhibitors were in order to tap into their self-awareness. We discussed the basic assumptions around gender bias that are so embedded in the way men and women communicate and explored ways to reframe those assumptions. Each participant created a leadership resiliency plan to stay the course throughout the program and beyond. Accountability partners were selected, and meetings were scheduled to keep everyone on track during the hiatus between the live sessions. We also focused on leveraging strengths to align with company competencies and provided one-on-one coaching opportunities to discuss individual development. The final two days were focused on skill building around negotiation and leading change to support living up to their leadership potential moving forward.

The outcomes were to show up with increased confidence and self-awareness; engage with leaders, colleagues and clients more effectively; create a leadership development plan; and to build a more cohesive women’s group across the company. The importance of this work for women is that the new reality of power requires that women are confident, able to connect and can create a powerful and engaging story. Participants had the opportunity to “rehearse” leadership strategies and, as a result they enhanced their leadership potential. Participants’ one word closing said it all - empowered, hopeful, inspired, optimistic, responsible, just to name a few!

                “Creating a safe setting—a coaching relationship, a women’s leadership program, a support group of peers in which women can interpret these messages is critical to leadership identity development”