The Untapped Potential of Female Leadership

Centered Leadership can help women unleash their potential as effective business leaders in a VUCA business landscape

In the last years, more women have accessed top leadership roles in companies. The share of women in boards has seen a huge increase to 27% in the US and almost 25% of women in[JB1]  C-Suite positions. But when you look at women in the C-Suite, you need to distinguish if those women are in jobs that afford them possibility to get the top role (i.e.., CEO). Women are promoted to be chiefs of HR, Communications, Legal or IT, among other positions —and that is where they stop. Accordingly, the number of female CEOs in big companies in the US (Fortune 500) is still low –it reached 8.8% in 2022—, although an amazing increase over the last two decades (back then the percentage was under 1%).

In Mexico, women hold only 13.9% of senior positions in companies, and, according to McKinsey research, it will take about 100 years to achieve gender parity in the country. This inequity rises many questions: Why is progress so slow if women outnumber men in college degrees? Why aren’t women moving up at the pace of men? In my opinion, women are up against a huge discount. Women face greater challenges, plain and simple. Our lack of advancement cannot be explained only by lack of ambition, motherhood, stamina, or other excuses.

Women’s challenges are propelled by unconscious bias, although in many cases the bias is not so unconscious! This unfair and irrational system hurts not only women leaders, but business itself. The business case for advancing women is clear and stronger than ever. Our past surveys show that when there are three or more women in top management, organizations are healthier. Nine critical elements for companies’ success consistently improved compared to organizations without at least three women at the top. There are additional arguments to be made if you’re not convinced: matching your customer base; matching your employee base; encouraging greater innovation and collaboration; increasing a vital sense of belonging—a key reason young people are quitting in such large numbers.

Starting in 2004, I went on a personal journey to better understand why some women to rise to the top. For many years, I interviewed senior women from around the world in many different countries, industries, government, academy, etc. I was particularly interested in what those brought to leadership, succeeding despite uneven playing fields. We also surveyed men and women in SMEs and large companies around the world to validate what we were learning in the interviews. Finally, we interviewed men leaders, too.

The results showed us that women bring certain characteristics to leadership even more critical to our VUCA, post-COVID-19 context than they were at that time: these leaders brought a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics. They brought meaning to work, seeking purpose long before that became a popular concept!  In difficult situations, they brought a learning mindset. They made meaningful relationships built on trust and were instrumental in forging community. They paid attention to their employees, inviting collaboration and risk-taking. And finally, they brought positive energy—love for the work and organization, friendships with their colleagues, joy, and an ability to face fear together, which is vital in very challenging situations.

This research spurred the concept of Centered Leadership, a new approach to leadership that focuses on managing our thoughts, feelings, and actions to inspire others to unleash their potential and contribute to profound change. Centered Leadership is not just about getting ahead at work, but about living your life more fully. When I reflect about the enormous challenges that lie ahead, there are three aspects of this leadership model that can help executives—women, but also men--cope with our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous business landscape:

  1. Meaning: Leaders who are driven by purpose use their strengths at work and generate more positive energy.  Meaning is the ‘anchor’ to Centered Leadership because it inspires people to work with you and bring their best to work more of the time.
  2. Trust: The ability to create trust is critical in today’s organizations. GenY and GenZ want to be seen and heard. Leaders that create trust have more coherent organizations and can band together to succeed in difficult times, characterized by fear—prevalent in most organizations and in life today.
  3. Positive Energy: Leaders who bring a mindset of abundance, of learning and growth, overcome their employees’ fears and hesitation to take risks necessary to succeed in today’s work environment. Teams based on collaboration reject a ‘winner takes all’ mindset, releasing energy throughout the company. In contrast, companies that foster extreme competition create winners, but also many more losers and a culture of fearfulness that saps energy.

Women face greater challenges in business than men. In addition to the extra burdens and responsibilities of being wives, mothers, and daughters, many female leaders come up in organizations with a lack of safety nets, sponsors, support, and community. That is why specialized trainings for women executives are so important. When people who are struggling with similar challenges come together, magic happens. They share their experiences in different companies, that can inform their own challenges greatly, so they learn in an accelerated way.

Recently, I interviewed a female C-Suite executive of a Latin America company. Alone amongst male colleagues, she had been skeptical of leadership training just for women. When she experienced the program for herself, she discovered the power of sharing experiences and learning from other women in senior positions. She no longer felt alone, and importantly, she was able to grow through the collective wisdom of the group. I’ve been teaching Centered Leadership to female leaders in countries around the world since 2008. Despite differences in diverse patriarchal cultures, participants (re)discover their personal strengths, their distinctiveness, and the importance of female networks to support their rise to the top.

If you are working in Mexico or more broadly in Latin America, I invite you to take this opportunity to develop as a  centered leader in a new executive program held by Monterrey Tech that will take place in Puerto Vallarta in the first week of November. I cannot wait to welcome you there!

The auther is Senior Partner Emeritus of McKinsey & Company, Founder of the Centered Leadership program and instructor in the EGADE Executive Program Women Leading Organizations.

Article published in Forbes México.

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