These days, reading any business advice column for women can seem like a confusing barrage of contradictory phrases. Are women supposed to lean in or opt out? Act up? Speak more? Get ahead, get tough, stay late?
I know how challenging the corporate world can be for women, from my beginnings years ago as a creative in an ad agency and from managing my successful businesses today. But when I reflect on my career and how I impart advice for young women leaders, I don’t see the action phrases of Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer. Rather, three simple words stand out most: vision, authenticity, and grace.
In a series of posts here at ClearPoint’s Join the Conversation, I want to talk about these three words, and how women can focus on these ideas to inspire themselves and lead others effectively. This first installment will center on vision.
I’m reminded of a study I read a few years back, conducted by business organization INSEAD. The study’s authors reviewed data from thousands of peer reviews of male and female executives. They found that women executives performed as well as or better than their male colleagues in every area except for one: “vision,” or “the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise.” The authors suggest several reasons that women may score substantially lower in this field, including a hesitation to articulate visionary thinking and in translating that vision into a strategic direction for the organization. Women place less value on “visionary pronouncements,” seeing them as useless to the business’s bottom line.
These findings are disappointing but not completely surprising. In my experience, women in the workplace often feel that they must distance themselves from traditionally “feminine” qualities to achieve success. The propensity to dream, to be boldly creative, and to come up with a practical plan to make creativity real - the key qualities of visionary thought and action - can be undervalued, especially in industries that emphasize “hard” sales and results.
However, the concept of vision is extraordinarily important to me, and has been crucial to my own success as a businesswoman. I like to think that vision is the reason why my career has progressed the way it has, and why my companies exist. Without envisioning exactly what I wanted and where I wanted to be, my trajectory would haven been much different. When advising young women leaders, therefore, I like to stress the importance of vision as a concrete tool for individual and company-wide success.
It’s first necessary to realize that vision is a fault-free and limit-free zone. This can be especially freeing to young women, who are often conditioned by society to “check in” with others at every step of the way. Visions must be bold – it’s impossible to make mistakes when you’re dreaming!
The INSEAD study theorizes that women’s tendency to form visions within a group setting makes their ideas less valuable to coworkers, who may undervalue the “collaborative process.” I disagree - to a point. I encourage leaders to formulate visions on their own, but to run their ideas by someone who isn’t so close: a colleague in another department, a respected friend in another company, and so on. Getting feedback from an impartial and challenging source is crucial to help turn your visions into concrete realities.
Once you concretely envision where you’re going, and plan how you’re going to get there, I say that next, you must imagine and act as if you’re actually going there, and effectively communicate that direction with your team. The INSEAD study’s authors write that women may be “hesitant to make audacious statements” about their visions. Here, decisive and solid communication is key to make the transition from dream to reality: No one will believe in a leader’s vision if she first doesn’t have faith in her own ideas.
Finally, I advise, keep on top of your vision’s progression to reality. Tweak it as you go, making it more real at every turn. Track your progress and celebrate all victories small and large. Learn every day from your mistakes. Any worthwhile vision deserves the chance to become real, no matter the gender of the visionary.