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There is little question that traditional gender stereotypes do not typically associate women with “power” in the workplace. Here, we use power to mean the “possession of control, authority, or influence over others”.i Women are often considered the “doers” and “implementers” rather than the visionariesii or those who command action from others. And, with only 19% of C-suite roles held by women,iii this is not surprising. There are few female models for men or women to turn to in order to see the strong compatibility between women and power.

Though norms are shifting, change is slow, and it is not always clear what individuals can do to make progress toward gaining power. We suggest one approach women can take is to actively design and develop their personal power source. By strategically identifying, growing and leveraging their influence, women can not only help themselves rise in their careers but also model and engage in behaviors that scaffold other women to do the same. As such, we propose a framework with which to think about, design and develop your own personal power source.

Cultivate the Right Mindset

The deck is often stacked against women when it comes to seeing themselves as naturally powerful leaders. The characteristics that people often consider strong in leadership are also those typically associated with masculinity (e.g., assertive, independent and dominant). Common gender stereotypesiv characterize femininity, on the other hand, as synonymous with being nurturing, sensitive and gentle, traits not traditionally linked to leadership. As a result of these stereotypes combined with the prevailing gender disparity in leadership roles across major industries, both men and women are less likely to view women as prime candidates for roles with authorityv. Yet in order to establish power, it is necessary for women to  overcome these perceptions and internalize their own capacity for power.vi


You may be thinking, “easier said than done.” And, by all means, changing gender associations developed over the course of a lifetime – and, often by extension, one’s gender-based narrative (e.g., “I am not powerful, nor do I want to be”) is not easy. However, it is entirely possible. Indeed, when working with a group of 10 female Managing Directors from one of the major investment banks, we found that 9/10 women had experienced some form of this internal struggle. They had all learned and continued to learn how to embrace their capacity for power.


One important step is to check your assumptions. Examine your definitions, beliefs and feelings about power and consider whether power can and should be yours.


Exercise: Write down the word Power on a piece of paper and circle it. Next, take two minutes to write every word you associate with the word Power around the circle. See what you come up with. Are the words mainly positive? Negative? Are the words you’ve written also words you would associate with yourself? Why or why not? If you find that your definition of power does not overlap with the way you view yourself, it may be time to shift your thinking. Reframe power as something more positive and accessible. For example, power could mean implementing your best ideas or your core purpose through others or driving key results through influence. Consider your assets and strengths, and think about what you currently already have power or control over. Women have been socialized to anticipate backlash and negative feedback when they act in counter-stereotypic waysvii (i.e., when they act in traditionally masculine ways) so know that it’s okay if it feels uncomfortable to associate yourself with power and powerful behaviors – but don’t shy away. This feeling will diminish over time as you acclimate to exerting power.


Clarify Your Purpose for Power

As important as becoming more comfortable with the idea that you can and should hold power (and note that this is an iterative practice) is the question: why do you want power? What are those ideas or results that you envision? What could you achieve – for you, for the causes that are important to you, for others – that greater power would enable in the future? Anchoring in your reason for wanting power (your business or professional purpose) can help energize and motivate you to pursue opportunities to develop your power. By focusing beyond the societal barriers that could hold you back, and looking toward your goals, you can better recognize what you need to do or learn in order to achieve the power you need to meet those goals.viii There is no question that, given the opportunity, women are just as capable of wielding power as are men. So, how will you use it?


Understand Systems

We know that organizational politics have a bad reputation, particularly among women. Research suggests that women are more likely than men to see office politics as distasteful and are less comfortable consciously leveraging their relationships to get ahead.ix Advancing the self through relationships can feel inauthentic to some and counter to the idea that it should be what you know, not who know you know, that makes a difference in your career. And, in one study, 81% of women and 61% of men reported that women are judged more harshly than men when they are seen as engaging in corporate politics, so it is no wonder that women often opt to avoid “getting political.”x But if one defines politics as how power is practically maneuvered on a daily basis,xi it is simply a process that can be used for positive outcomes (i.e., in service of goals that are aligned with a purpose, mission or the organization’s strategy) or for negative outcomes. Viewing politics this way, the question becomes how are you using power on a daily basis to advance your goals or purpose? And, viewed through this lens, “getting political” is not optional when it comes to “getting ahead.”

To begin to get into the political game (or, more so, to accept that they’re already in it and to win), we suggest that women need to consciously enhance their political astuteness and actively work to understand the political structure in their organization.xii What this means is, pay attention to people. One client of ours in a Private Equity Portfolio Company in the industrial space lived by the exercise of mapping out one’s organization’s informal relationships,xiii who goes to whom for advice? Who exchanges support during meetings? The fact is that there is no pure meritocracy – power and influence move some people to the forefront – who are these people and who is helping them? Who are they helping in return? In this way, some knowledge is a gateway to power, though not enough in and of itself. Our client, ultimately very successful in her industry, acknowledged and embraced the idea that knowing the ins and outs of your organization’s political structure positions you to mine the gaps, seek out the right influencers at the right times and begin to see how you can build the right support system for your own bottom line.


Be Strategic

As you take note of your organization’s political structure, we also suggest that you consider your stakeholders. This is where your personal network comes into play. Informal and formal networks can be invaluable resources when gaging opportunities for advancement, support for promotion or simply letting you know when you need to improve on a presentation. Yet, because people tend toward similar others (which means men tending to network with men), women are often at a disadvantage when it comes to networking. This means they may have to work more deliberately to develop the right network.

When mapping your network, consider your superiors, peers and subordinates in your department, company and beyond. Do you have people to go to who have specialized skills or knowledge? Are you close to people who have broad influence and can build stakeholders’ commitment and buy-in surrounding you and your career? Do you have people in your network who will provide encouragement as well as people who will give you honest and straightforward feedback? It is important to nurture a multi-purpose network, one that includes emotional support but also people who can mentor, sponsor and advocate for you.

If there are gaps in your network, think about why. Are there skills or opportunities you can offer that you are not currently utilizing? Use exchange and reciprocity to consciously build a broader and more strategic network. Remember, networking is just relationship building, but it is key to cultivating your personal power source.


Experiment with Powerful Behaviors

Because behaving inconsistently with how we have learned we should act can feel fraudulent, we often point to feelings of inauthenticity as a reason for staying in our comfort zones.xiv Indeed, many people struggle with feelings of inauthenticity when it comes to stepping into new roles or taking on new challenges. This can be a particular problem as women move up the corporate – or other – ladder and need to behave in increasingly powerful ways.

Take a moment to really consider, however, that just because something feels uncomfortable does not mean you should shy away from it. In fact, we know from psychology that developmental shifts typically involve some disruption and uncertainty, but we have to push through the awkwardness to stabilize at a next level. So we suggest that women behave in ways that exude power and make them feel powerful, even when this does not initially feel natural. Consider it a “fake it until you make it” approach – and you will make it. By practicing powerful behaviors, women can not only get a sense of what these behaviors feel like, but begin to see the difference in how others treat them and what they can accomplish with powerful actions.


Some behaviors we suggest that are pivotal to developing power are:

  • Develop breadth and depth in your space – knowledge is power.

  • Be a LEARNER – intellectual curiosity and agility predict leadership success regardless of gender.

  • Replace subservient language with powerful language (minimizing, apologizing, upward inflection…). You know what you’re talking about, make that clear.

  • Enhance your Executive Presence (the lens through which others can more clearly see your competence). Consider the impression you want to make for a strong, positive impact.

  • Be respectful and nurture trust to build social capital. Network strategically and honestly.

  • Identify and solve problems and produce material results. Be proactive.

  • Be strategic and communicate a vision. Women often position themselves as indispensable when it comes to their organizational abilities and stamina, but are more cautious than men when it comes to advocating for unconventional ideas (particularly when the ideas do not have supporting evidence). As such, women are less likely to be seen as “visionaries” or innovative thinkers.xv Step outside this box. Take calculated risks.

  • Raise awareness among men who have come to trust you. You already have more influence than you realize.

  • Take risks and STRETCH.

  • Envision and inspire.

  • Take credit when earned. Though women often avoid situations in which they may sound boastful because it can, indeed, trigger backlash, gaining power requires you to sell yourself and get noticed, so find ways to make your impact clear.


Designing and developing your personal power source is no small endeavor. It requires conscientious and proactive work to shape the people around you and your own presence and behaviors. Though difficult to attain, power is ultimately an invaluable tool in advancing in your career, achieving your purpose and having professional and personal impact. It IS within your reach.

If you’re interested in discussing how these issues are at play in your company and how to address them, reach out to Contemporary Leadership Advisors at CMitamura@CLAdvisors.com

Or if you’re interested in attending a workshop on developing your power source, visit https://www.icl.institute/site/event/womens-leadership.html




Chelsea Mitamura, Ph.D. and Beth Gullette, Ph.D.

Contemporary Leadership Advisors


i “power.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power

ii Kaiser, R., & Wallace, W. (2014). Changing the narrative on why women aren’t reaching the top, Talent Quarterly, 1, 15-20.

iii Krivkovich, A., Robinson, K, Starikova, I., Valentino, R., & Yee, L. (2016). Women in the workplace. Mckinsey & Company.

iv Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109(3), 573.

v Ibarra, H., Carter, N., & Silva, C. (2010). Why men still get more promotions than women. Harvard Business Review.

vi Ibarra,H., Ely, R., & Kolb, D. (2013) Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review.

vii Rudman, L. A., & Fairchild, K. (2004). Reactions to counterstereotypic behavior: the role of backlash in cultural stereotype

maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 157.

viii Ibarra,H., Ely, R., & Kolb, D. (2013) Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review.

ix Heath, K. (2017). 3 Simple ways for women to rethink office politics and wield more influence at work. Harvard Business Review.

x Heath, K. (2017). 3 Simple ways for women to rethink office politics and wield more influence at work. Harvard Business Review.

xi Flynn, J., Heath, K., & Holt, M.D. (2012). Three ways women can make office politics work for them. Harvard Business Review.

xii Cross, R., & Thomas, R. (2011). A smarter way to network. Harvard business review.

xiii Heath, K. (2017). 3 Simple ways for women to rethink office politics and wield more influence at work. Harvard Business Review.

xiv Ibarra, H., (2015). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review.

xv Kaiser, R., & Wallace, W. (2014). Changing the narrative on why women aren’t reaching the top, Talent Quarterly, 1, 15-20.


Chelsea Mitamura, Ph.D.

Chelsea is a consulting psychologist focused broadly on leadership development and more specifically on diversity and inclusion, team building and the advancement of women leaders. Chelsea completed her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Psychology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison and her B.A. at Vassar College.

Beth Gullette, Ph.D.

Beth is a Managing Partner at CLA and a consulting psychologist and trusted adviser to executives, boards and investors. Prior to co-founding CLA, Beth was a founding member of AlixPartners’ Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness group, Coaching Practice Leader and Senior Faculty Member at The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), and Senior Director of Learning & Development at Lash Group. Beth holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Clinical Psychology from Duke University.

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News

NEW YORK, NY, 2017 – Dan Fisher, Managing Partner with Contemporary Leadership Advisors (CLA), has been named to the board of directors for Row New York, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching young people in under-resourced communities the sport of competitive rowing—and through it, the values of teamwork, tenacity, and commitment to self and others. Paired with intensive academic tutoring, the rowing programs have given thousands of teens the motivation and skills to excel both on the water and in the classroom.

“As an experienced consulting psychologist, Dan blends behavioral science and business acumen,” said Row New York Executive Director Amanda Krause.  “We’re excited to have him on the Row New York Board and we look forward to leveraging his leadership and teamwork expertise.”

 At CLA, Fisher serves as trusted advisor to C-Suite executives, boards, and investors in selecting and assessing leaders, developing high performance teams, and aligning companies around vision, mission and strategy.  Prior to co-founding CLA, he was a founding member of AlixPartners’ Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness practice and previously co-founded Fisher Rock Consulting.  Fisher completed postdoctoral studies and was a faculty member at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of California, San Diego. He is active in the consulting psychology field and is a frequent speaker at professional conferences.

Row New York began in 2002 and has since served thousands of young people, with teams that have medaled at the New York State championships for seven years in a row, and regularly hold their own at regional regattas against athletes who have every advantage. Nearly 100% of its graduates go on to higher learning, most on scholarship. Row serves more than 2000 individuals across all programs, including 230 middle schoolers and high schoolers in the year-round intensive program, as well as PE classes in NYC public schools, summer camps, para-rowing for athletes with physical and/or cognitive disabilities, and programs for adults.   For eight months a year, Row hosts one-of-a-kind team building events, proceeds from which support the organizational mission.


Fisher’s firm, Contemporary Leadership Advisors, combines behavioral science and business expertise to help organizations create value by selecting and developing the right leaders, driving senior team effectiveness, designing aligned and agile organizations, and developing engaged and effective boards.  The focus on contemporary leadership acknowledges that new capabilities, and courage, are required to lead, adapt, and thrive in a complex, changing world.  For more information, visit www.cladvisors.com.

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Blog
Every textbook on organizational change has as a central tenet the idea of “resistance to change.” The premise is that people have a predisposition to resist change and it is the work of leaders and change agents to overcome this resistance. Unfortunately, this thinking has itself become a major obstacle to transforming organizations and it’s time to completely rethink our approach.

Kurt Lewin, the social psychology pioneer, first came up with the idea of resistance to change. For Lewin, however, resistance wasn’t specific to individuals. It was a broader, systemic phenomenon. Resistance to change could result from anything that impeded the change, including misaligned work processes, organizational structure, and/or rewards and recognition. Since Lewin first proposed the idea of resistance to change, it has been pared down to refer specifically to individuals’ psychological state.

At the same time, “resistance to change” has become an excuse to ignore employees’ concerns. If I, as a leader, can label your response ‘resistance,’ then I can largely disregard it. The problem shifts from the change I’m proposing to those who disagree with it. How convenient is that?

This the problem is that this mindset undermines change efforts for several reasons:

1. When employees feel their concerns are not given consideration, it ironically creates the very resistance organizations seek to overcome. Imagine if every time you raised a question or concern you were told your behavior was “resistant.” You would likely get resistant pretty darn quickly.

2. Leaders’ decision-making suffers. Employees, particularly those who must modify how they work for the change to succeed, are often well positioned to comment on the change. They have good ideas for how to improve on it and knowledge about what might go wrong. By assuming their feedback stems from resistance, leaders miss out on the chance to inform and improve the change.

3. Leaders lose the opportunity to build employee buy-in. When we take employees’ concerns and suggestions seriously and modify our plans accordingly, we generate employee ownership. In short, people own what they co-create. They are much more likely to alter their behavior in accordance with the change when they see their own perspective reflected in it.

So, in short, the best way to overcome resistance to change is to put the concept itself to bed. Alternatively, adopt the less combative, and more inclusive term ‘response to change.’ Instead of overcoming employees questions, concerns, goals, etc., try to incorporate them. This is not to suggest that organizations are democracies or that change processes should include everyone. But, while fewer is faster, it is not always better, particularly when transforming organizations.
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Blog

Advances in digital technologies (e.g. social, mobile, cloud, big data, etc.) are dramatically improving how businesses operate.  MIT’s Center for Digital Business purports that digitally transformed businesses are 26% more profitable than their peers.  According to MIT, these digital organizations do more than simply invest in digital technologies, however.  They also invest in the leadership capabilities necessary for digital transformation.

Digital leadership can’t be delegated to a consultant, a tech-savvy board member or even Chief Digital Officer. CEO’s themselves must lead digital transformation.  However, most CEO progressed through the ranks long before the term ‘digital’ even entered the business lexicon.  How can these executives get up to speed?  Here are 5 simply ideas.

1. Admit you Don’t Know

It’s tough to admit you don’t know, particularly for executives who are expected to always have an answer.  In fact, research shows that the smartest people often have the toughest time learning because their identity is based on the fact that they’re the expert. 

But digital technologies are new to all of us. Be vulnerable.  Ask “What’s the Internet of things?” and “What’s the difference between social media and social networking.” After all, in the words of Socrates, “The only true wisdom is in admitting you know nothing.”

2. Reverse Mentor

CEOs are often involved in mentoring relationships.  Typically, though, they’re the ones sharing their insight. Conversely, in reverse mentoring, it’s the CEO who is doing the learning.  He or she is mentored by younger, more technically-savvy employee.  Jack Welch used the strategy at GE when he asked 500 of his most senior executives to learn how to use the Internet from their more junior colleagues.  Subsequently, multiple companies, including Ogilvy & Mather, Hewlett Packard, and Cisco Systems have all employed reverse mentoring.

3. Use Social Media

Although CEOs use of social media is on the rise, most still use the digital tool less than one hour per week. This is unfortunate as social media is a great way for CEOs to interact with investors, customers and employees while learning about digital technologies.  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, for example, caused the company’s stock to rise 6% when he posted that monthly online viewing had exceeded 1 billion hours. What’s more, research indicates that CEO’s use of social media makes their employees feel inspired and technologically advanced. So, if you haven’t already, create a social networking account, post a YouTube video, or start an external blog.

4. Embark on a Digital Learning Journey

Too often C-suites suffer from ‘group think.’ CEOs and their executives continually reinforce the same ways of thinking and reject new ideas as not invented here.  A great way to combat this tendency is through a learning journey.  In a learning journey executives leave their traditional environment and tour different contexts to experience new perspectives and fresh ideas.

Learning journeys are a valuable way to learn about how other companies are using digital technologies.  Visit customers, suppliers, or peer companies to see have they use digital to interact with the marketplace, accelerate business processes, and improve decision making and employee collaboration.

5. Host a Digital Disruption Summit

Digital technologies will ultimately transform every industry. At last year’s CEO2CEO Digital Transformation Summit, for example, experts suggested that the introduction of virtual reality could reduce air travel by as much as 30%. 

Conduct a Digital Disruption Summit to consider how digital might disrupt your industry.  Bring together subject matter experts to share their perspective on digital transformation, identify the opportunities and threats to your business, and prioritize areas for further exploration.

Like the transformation from steam to electricity, digital is a disruptive force that will ultimately change how every business operates.  CEOs owe it to themselves, their employees, and their investors to get smart about digital so they can lead the way rather than get left behind. The time to start learning is now.  Never have John F. Kennedy’s famous words been more true: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

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