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Susan Colantuono: The career advice you probably didn’t get

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You’re doing everything right at work, taking all the right advice, but you’re just not moving up. Why? Susan Colantuono shares a simple, surprising piece of advice you might not have heard before quite so plainly. This talk, while aimed at an audience of women, has universal takeaways -- for men and women, new grads and midcareer workers.

- Leadership expert
Susan Colantuono is the CEO and founder of Leading Women. Full bio

Women represent
00:12
50 percent of middle management
00:14
and professional positions,
00:17
but the percentages of women
at the top of organizations
00:20
represent not even a third of that number.
00:23
So some people hear that statistic and they ask,
00:26
why do we have so few women leaders?
00:29
But I look at that statistic
00:33
and, if you, like me, believe
00:35
that leadership manifests at every level,
00:38
you would see that there's a tremendous,
00:41
awesome resource of leaders
00:44
who are leading in middle management,
00:47
which raises a different question:
00:50
Why are there so many women
00:53
mired in the middle
00:55
and what has to happen
00:57
to take them to the top?
00:59
So some of you might be some of those women
01:02
who are in middle management
01:04
and seeking to move up in your organization.
01:06
Well, Tonya is a great example
of one of these women.
01:10
I met her two years ago.
01:14
She was a vice president in a Fortune 50 company,
01:15
and she said to me with a sense of deep frustration,
01:19
"I've worked really hard to improve my confidence
01:23
and my assertiveness and develop a great brand,
01:26
I get terrific performance evals from my boss,
01:30
my 360s in the organization let me know
01:33
that my teams love working for me,
01:37
I've taken every management course that I can here,
01:40
I am working with a terrific mentor,
01:44
and yet I've been passed over
01:46
twice for advancement opportunities,
01:49
even when my manager knows
01:52
that I'm committed to moving up
01:54
and even interested in an international assignment.
01:56
I don't understand why
02:01
I'm being passed over."
02:03
So what Tonya doesn't realize
02:05
is that there's a missing 33 percent
02:07
of the career success equation for women,
02:10
and it's understanding what this missing 33 percent is
02:13
that's required to close the gender gap at the top.
02:17
In order to move up in organizations,
02:22
you have to be known for your leadership skills,
02:25
and this would apply to any of you,
02:28
women or men.
02:29
It means that you have to be recognized
02:32
for using the greatness in you
02:35
to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes
02:37
by engaging the greatness in others.
02:41
Put in other language,
02:44
it means you have to use your skills
02:46
and talents and abilities
02:48
to help the organization achieve
02:50
its strategic financial goals
02:53
and do that by working effectively with others
02:56
inside of the organization and outside.
02:59
And although all three of these elements
03:03
of leadership are important,
03:06
when it comes to moving up in organizations,
03:08
they aren't equally important.
03:10
So pay attention to the green box
03:12
as I move forward.
03:15
In seeking and identifying
03:19
employees with high potential,
03:22
the potential to go to the top of organizations,
03:24
the skills and competencies
03:29
that relate to that green box
03:32
are rated twice as heavily
03:34
as those in the other two elements of leadership.
03:36
These skills and competencies
03:40
can be summarized as business,
03:42
strategic, and financial acumen.
03:45
In other words, this skill set has to do
03:48
with understanding where the organization is going,
03:51
what its strategy is,
03:55
what financial targets it has in place,
03:57
and understanding your role
04:00
in moving the organization forward.
04:01
This is that missing 33 percent
04:04
of the career success equation for women,
04:08
not because it's missing in our capabilities
04:11
or abilities,
04:13
but because it's missing in the advice
04:15
that we're given.
04:17
Here's what I mean by that.
04:19
Five years ago, I was asked to moderate
04:21
a panel of executives,
04:23
and the topic for the evening was
04:25
"What do you look for in
high-potential employees?"
04:27
So think about the three elements of leadership
04:30
as I summarize for you what they told me.
04:33
They said, "We look for people
04:36
who are smart and hard working and committed
04:38
and trustworthy and resilient."
04:42
So which element of leadership does that relate to?
04:46
Personal greatness.
04:50
They said, "We look for employees
04:52
who are great with our customers,
04:55
who empower their teams,
04:57
who negotiate effectively,
04:59
who are able to manage conflict well,
05:01
and are overall great communicators."
05:04
Which element of leadership does that equate to?
05:07
Engaging the greatness in others.
05:10
And then they pretty much stopped.
05:13
So I asked,
05:15
"Well, what about people
05:17
who understand your business,
05:19
where it's going,
05:21
and their role in taking it there?
05:22
And what about people who are able
05:25
to scan the external environment,
05:26
identify risks and opportunities,
05:29
make strategy or make strategic recommendations?
05:32
And what about people who are able
05:36
to look at the financials of your business,
05:38
understand the story that the financials tell,
05:41
and either take appropriate action
05:45
or make appropriate recommendations?"
05:47
And to a man, they said,
05:50
"That's a given."
05:52
So I turned to the audience
05:54
of 150 women and I asked,
05:55
"How many of you have ever been told
05:58
that the door-opener for career advancement
06:01
is your business, strategic and financial acumen,
06:04
and that all the other important stuff
06:08
is what differentiates you in the talent pool?"
06:11
Three women raised their hand,
06:14
and I've asked this question of women
06:17
all around the globe in the five years since,
06:20
and the percentage is never much different.
06:22
So this is obvious, right?
06:27
But how can it be?
06:29
Well, there are primarily three reasons
06:31
that there's this missing 33 percent
06:33
in the career success advice given to women?
06:35
When organizations direct women
06:39
toward resources
06:41
that focus on the conventional advice
06:43
that we've been hearing for over 40 years,
06:45
there's a notable absence of advice that relates
06:47
to business, strategic and financial acumen.
06:51
Much of the advice is emphasizing
06:54
personal actions that we need to take,
06:57
like become more assertive, become more confident,
06:59
develop your personal brand,
07:02
things that Tonya's been working on,
07:04
and advice about working with other people,
07:06
things like learn to self-promote,
07:09
get a mentor, enhance your network,
07:12
and virtually nothing said
07:14
about the importance of business, strategic
07:16
and financial acumen.
07:19
This doesn't mean that this advice is unimportant.
07:21
What it means is that this is advice
07:25
that's absolutely essential for breaking through
07:28
from career start to middle management,
07:31
but it's not the advice
07:35
that gets women to break through
07:37
from the middle, where we're 50 percent,
07:39
to senior and executive positions.
07:41
And this is why conventional advice to women
07:44
in 40 years hasn't closed the gender gap at the top
07:47
and won't close it.
07:51
Now, the second reason
07:54
relates to Tonya's comments
07:56
about having had excellent performance evals,
07:57
great feedback from her teams,
08:02
and having taken every management training program
08:05
she can lay her hands on.
08:07
So you would think that she's getting
08:09
messages from her organization
08:12
through the talent development systems
08:15
and performance management systems
08:17
that let her know how important it is
08:19
to develop business, strategic and financial acumen,
08:21
but here again, that green square is quite small.
08:25
On average,
08:29
talent and performance management systems
08:31
in the organizations that I've worked with
08:33
focus three to one
08:36
on the other two elements of leadership
08:38
compared to the importance of business,
08:41
strategic and financial acumen,
08:43
which is why typical talent and performance systems
08:46
haven't closed and won't close
08:50
the gender gap at the top.
08:52
Now, Tonya also talked about working with a mentor,
08:55
and this is really important to talk about,
08:59
because if organizations,
09:02
talent and performance systems
09:03
aren't giving people in general
09:05
information about the importance of
09:07
business, strategic and financial acumen,
09:10
how are men getting to the top?
09:12
Well, there are primarily two ways.
09:14
One is because of the positions
09:17
they're guided into,
09:19
and the other is because of informal mentoring
09:21
and sponsorship.
09:24
So what's women's experience
09:25
as it relates to mentoring?
09:27
Well, this comment from an executive
09:29
that I worked with recently
09:32
illustrates that experience.
09:34
He was very proud of the fact that last year,
09:36
he had two protégés: a man and a woman.
09:39
And he said, "I helped the woman build confidence,
09:43
I helped the man learn the business,
09:46
and I didn't realize that I was treating them
09:49
any differently."
09:51
And he was sincere about that.
09:53
So what this illustrates is that
09:55
as managers, whether we're women or men,
09:57
we have mindsets about women and men,
10:00
about careers in leadership,
10:02
and these unexamined mindsets
10:04
won't close the gender gap at the top.
10:07
So how do we take this idea
10:10
of the missing 33 percent
10:12
and turn it into action?
10:14
Well, for women, the answer is obvious:
10:16
we have to begin to focus more
10:20
on developing and demonstrating
10:22
the skills we have
10:24
that show that we're people who understand
10:26
our businesses, where they're headed,
10:28
and our role in taking it there.
10:30
That's what enables that breakthrough
10:33
from middle management
10:35
to leadership at the top.
10:37
But you don't have to be a middle manager to do this.
10:40
One young scientist that works in a biotech firm
10:43
used her insight about the missing 33 percent
10:46
to weave financial impact data
10:51
into a project update she did
10:54
and got tremendous positive feedback
10:56
from the managers in the room.
10:58
So we don't want to put 100 percent
11:01
of the responsibility on women's shoulders,
11:03
nor would it be wise to do so, and here's why:
11:07
In order for companies to achieve
11:11
their strategic financial goals,
11:13
executives understand that they have to have
11:15
everyone pulling in the same direction.
11:17
In other words, the term we use in business is,
11:20
we have to have strategic alignment.
11:23
And executives know this very well,
11:25
and yet only 37 percent,
11:28
according to a recent Conference Board report,
11:31
believe that they have that
11:33
strategic alignment in place.
11:35
So for 63 percent of organizations,
11:38
achieving their strategic financial goals
11:41
is questionable.
11:44
And if you think about what I've just shared,
11:45
that you have situations where at least 50 percent
11:49
of your middle managers
11:52
haven't received clear messaging
11:53
that they have to become focused on the business,
11:56
where it's headed, and their role in taking it there,
12:00
it's not surprising that that percentage
12:02
of executives who are confident about alignment
12:04
is so low,
12:07
which is why there are other people
12:08
who have a role to play in this.
12:11
It's important for directors on boards
12:14
to expect from their executives
12:17
proportional pools of women when they sit down
12:20
once a year for their succession discussions.
12:23
Why? Because if they aren't seeing that,
12:25
it could be a red flag
12:28
that their organization isn't as aligned
12:30
as it could potentially be.
12:33
It's important for CEOs
12:36
to also expect these proportional pools,
12:37
and if they hear comments like,
12:40
"Well, she doesn't have
enough business experience,"
12:41
ask the question,
12:44
"What are we going to do about that?"
12:46
It's important for H.R. executives
12:48
to make sure that the missing 33 percent
12:50
is appropriately emphasized,
12:52
and it's important for women and men
12:55
who are in management positions
12:57
to examine the mindsets we hold
12:59
about women and men, about careers and success,
13:01
to make sure we are creating a level playing field
13:03
for everybody.
13:06
So let me close with the latest chapter
13:08
in Tonya's story.
13:10
Tonya emailed me two months ago,
13:12
and she said that she had been
interviewed for a new position,
13:13
and during the interview, they probed
13:16
about her business acumen
13:18
and her strategic insights into the industry,
13:20
and she said that she was so happy to report
13:23
that now she has a new position
13:25
reporting directly to the
chief information officer
13:27
at her company.
13:30
So for some of you, the missing 33 percent
13:33
is an idea for you to put into action,
13:35
and I hope that for all of you,
13:38
you will see it as an idea worth spreading
13:40
in order to help organizations be more effective,
13:44
to help women create careers that soar,
13:46
and to help close the gender gap at the top.
13:49
Thank you.
13:52
(Applause)
13:54

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About the Speaker:

Susan Colantuono - Leadership expert
Susan Colantuono is the CEO and founder of Leading Women.

Why you should listen
Susan Colantuono is the CEO of Leading Women, a management consulting firm that empowers women. Colantuono works to uncover hidden gender bias and to help managers and executives think more deeply about the role gender plays in the workplace. She is the author of No Ceiling, No Walls: What women haven't been told about leadership, which takes a close look at the conventional wisdom keeping women from rising from middle management.
More profile about the speaker
Susan Colantuono | Speaker | TED.com