We interviewed Debbie Anderson, who delivered ‘Building Relationships and Influence’ (BRI), a programme for executive potential women in IBM, and has designed and is now delivering women’s leadership programmes for Empowering You, a partnership that specialises in delivering sustainable behavioural change.
Interviewer: Debbie, tell us briefly about your background in leadership development and empowering women.
Debbie: Sure. I have worked in Leadership Development for the past 13 years, training new and potential managers through to senior executive teams on a broad range of subjects from business strategy through to ‘softer’ skills such as emotional intelligence, motivation and empowerment. About 8 years ago I was invited to become a facilitator on IBM’s award winning BRI programme for executive potential women because I was one of the few people to have the seniority and skills to work at that level. BRI, and other women’s leadership courses that I delivered were created because IBM recognised early on that diversity in business is the key to success. I am delighted that there have been many success stories resulting from my delivery of the programme; the photo is from one of my BRI classes; it was sponsored by the UK & Ireland HR Director and from that class alone I know of 4 ladies who have moved into executive positions as a direct result of actions they took from the course (there may be more!). That equates to just under a 25% conversion rate.
Interviewer: Debbie, what is the biggest thing that organisations are missing?
Debbie: They are not taking the opportunity to take full advantage of the diversity of their workforce. Companies with more women board directors outperform others by 53%. This tells us that to succeed in a highly competitive marketplace organisations need to match and mirror their diversity to those of the clients and customers they serve. Whilst there have been improvements, there is still a long way to go because we are all influenced by our biases. Women, for example, still have to deal with negative perceptions around their skills, capabilities and behaviours in their careers; even more so as they move into more senior positions.
Interviewer: But the gender diversity gap gets wider as you look at more senior leadership positions. What is going on there? What is holding capable women back?
Debbie: A lot of different factors. Firstly, women have fewer opportunities than men and are considered pushy or bossy if they actively pursue their career. Societal bias plays a part in this; women are expected to be modest about their accomplishments and if they ‘brag’ about their achievements they are still seen as less likely to have desirable leadership skills. Women have a tendency to underrate and undervalue their contribution so are less likely to apply for more senior positions. When applying for a job, women tend to do so if they can fulfil 100% of the requirements; men will apply when they think they can fulfil about 60%. Imposter syndrome is something that everyone experiences, however, women are more likely to listen to their negative self-talk which influences their ability to take risks and their decision making.
Interviewer: But a lot of ‘mature’ medium-large organisations have in-house diversity and leadership programmes, so what isn’t working?
Debbie: Companies tend to operate on a very short-term operational basis ploughing money and resources into whatever needs to be achieved at any given time. Whilst they have the best of intentions in terms of the development of their leaders this often means that training programmes get cut. This makes it extremely difficult to create sustainable change. In my time in Leadership Development I have also seen organisations taking short cuts with their training, reducing programmes down to a minimum. Attending a one-day course is less likely to stimulate behaviour change than a programme of training and coaching which allows a person to explore themselves as an individual, identify what they would like to change and which also holds them accountable over a period of time.
Interviewer: What is the answer to that?
Debbie: What we have found in our Empowering Women programmes is that a ‘sandwich’ approach stimulates a long-term shift in our participants. Over a period of 3 months women attend a two day workshop, followed by individual coaching sessions and a final two day workshop. This approach has proved to be transformational for many. We have also found that a mixed group of participants from different organisations, different cultures and with varied experience levels creates a rich environment for learning. We ensure that enough time is spent building safety and trust in the workshop learning space. From there we take women on a journey of self-discovery. We challenge, stretch and build confidence. We provide something that many courses don’t offer; one-to-one coaching sessions throughout that embed the learning from the workshops.
Interviewer: Are there any other benefits?
Debbie: We have now run five cohorts in the last three years, with over 80 women leaders graduating from our programme. Many participants develop their own support and mentoring networks, with leaders in different organisations, so that they can tap into each other’s experience, learn from each other and take advantage of a trusted sounding board for new ideas and different leadership situations. Many women hate the idea of ‘networking’, but leave the programme recognising that relationships are important and that having a strong strategic network is critical to their success in leadership, especially when promoting their accomplishments!
Interviewer: Thank you Debbie!