Maridav/Adobestock
Source: Maridav/Adobestock

"We, as a society, still grapple with what it means to see powerful women,” said President Barack Obama.

In honor of the millions who marched for women and human rights around the world January 21...

Although there is solid evidence that having women leaders in companies equates to higher profitability, few organizations reap these benefits. The problem isn't just the glass ceiling; I found the damage occurs long before they near the top. It makes sense for our society and the economy for organizations to develop and promote smart, strong women.

When I researched what was keeping women from reaching the top rungs of the corporate ladder, I found many women opted out of jobs and careers based on personal fulfillment and identity needs, not traditional conflicts between marriage and work priorities.

I am one of those women. Before starting my own business, I worked for three companies each for five years. In each one, I was successful, received promotions and awards, earned more money than I dreamed I could, and then surprised everyone by leaving.

They were surprised because they couldn’t see how frustrated I was not getting my personal needs met. I didn’t feel my contributions were appreciated or understood, and I was rarely included in the conversations that affected my priorities. In the progressive tech companies I worked for, I was often told to tone-down my passion, obsessiveness, and restlessness. They could have leveraged these qualities for greater results.

There is a growing number of women like me around the world – smart, confident, and determined, yet disillusioned, exhausted, and confused. Many of us experience what I call the burden of greatness, a side effect of being a girl who was raised to be smart and strong.

WHO WE ARE

With the best of intentions, my parents raised me to excel. They told me I could do anything I put my mind to. Being ordinary was not an option. The roads wouldn’t be easy but the possibilities were limitless.

The problem with the message is that it has no direction or definition. The goal of being great and accomplishing something important is a constantly-moving target. I, and the women in my research, are plagued with this gnawing sense that there is always something more to do in this life, no matter what level of greatness we achieve.

We then wander from job to job, or from focus to focus, seeking the one accomplishment that will finally say, “You are enough.” Yet no matter the greatness of our achievement, when it’s done, we suffer from a gnawing sense we can do even more.

We get excited by new goals and projects, but then the longing sets in pushing us to move on.

I was coaching a strong woman doctor with multiple advanced degrees who was eager to move up in her corporation. Her boss said to me, “Can’t you just tell her to be happy where she is?” Of course I couldn’t, and the company lost one of their best employees.

It is a loss for everyone that managers don’t know how to support and develop their powerful female employees.

WHAT WE NEED

Smart, strong women love being busy and hate feeling bored. They are irritated by not being challenged enough, recognized enough, and included in making important decisions. They don't understand why there should be so many roadblocks to doing great work. They hate feeling stuck or that their work provides no significant value.

Therefore, the traditional incentives of compensation and promises of future promotions don’t work for smart, strong women. These women prize motion and meaning in their work. They want frequent new challenges they can learn from in work that is significant.

As their manager, there are steps you can take today to retain and inspire these women.

Whatever you do, make sure your intentions are focused on developing, not fixing women. Some companies provide special programs for women, but many are designed to fix women with life-balance skills. Few provide the advanced business skills women need to be successful in the ranks with global executives.

Instead, prepare smart, strong women (and men) to be senior leaders by giving them:

  • Training and follow-on coaching, plus mentors to help them understand power brokering in the organization. Include them in leadership programs that teach business acumen. I am still amazed how many leadership classes I teach that include few women, if any at all.
  • Frequent, new challenges. These women love to conquer new, complex projects, ones that will give them the opportunity to shine. Never assume their outside responsibilities will get in the way of a demanding new task. Let them make that decision. They can be creative in how to achieve goals, especially if they can set their own schedules.
  • Work that is meaningful. They want to contribute. They don't just work to make a living. They will align their energies with your penchant for profit when they know their good work will enhance the lives of others.
  • Recognition for their contribution. They want their value acknowledged. They need to know that others see the impact they have. Appreciate their creativity, leadership, strategic perspective, and determination. They will work hard to deserve the praise. Note: Wanting acknowledgment doesn’t mean they are insecure. Recognition confirms they’re on the right track. They will self-correct and focus on what is working more often than when you provide traditional “feedback.”

It's time to grapple with, understand, and support smart, strong, goal-driven women. Not just because it is the right thing to do but because it is also the economically best thing to do.

Quit making women fight to find their place. Give them what they need and the rewards for everyone will be great.

References

Reynolds, Marcia (2010) Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. San Francisco, CA. Berrett-Koehler Publishers

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