Why "As Leaders, Women Rule" but Sometimes Face a Glass Ceiling... and What You Can Do About It

3 min read | Susan Colantuono

Filtered portrait of an executive business woman writing on a glass wall at sunset-1

Darn, there it is again -- the pervasive advice that 50% of what you need to succeed in business is people skills. This time in a column written by famed executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith. He wrote:

"...your people skills often make the difference in how high you go. Who would you rather have as a CFO? A moderately good accountant who is great with people ...or a brilliant accountant who's inept with [people]... The candidate with superb people skills will win out every time, in large part because he (e.a.) will be able to...lead."

Oddly enough, these stories refer over and over again to "he." Hmm, could there be something about this formula that works for men, but not for women? Most assuredly!

Today's conventional wisdom about leadership is based on research and the resultant models conducted and rooted in the 70's when nearly all the leaders in U.S. corporations were men and when the way of thinking was an either/or worldview. For example, managers were either focused on tasks or focused on relationships.

33pieanimThis worldview works to the disadvantage of women leaders because it creates a bipolar choice set. You are either good at your job (in Goldsmith's column "a brilliant accountant") or you are a good people person. The inference is always that if you can be both, you will rise to the top of the company. In other words, the formula that arose from the 70's was 50% people skills + 50% technical competence = 100% career success.

This formula doesn't work for women. If it did, many more women would hold senior level positions. Why? Because research comparing the performance evaluations of men and women in similar positions, with similar tenure and in similar companies indicates that women outperform men in the area of interpersonal skills. In fact, Business Week called attention to these findings in its November 20, 2000 issue with a cover story titled, "As Leaders, Women Rule".

If interpersonal skills are so important and if women consistently outperform men in this skill set, why don't women hold many more seats at the top of organizations? Because people skills and professional competence aren't two halves of a whole. Together they make up only 66% of the whole story.

Yes, interpersonal skills are important. Yes, professional competence is important. And, yes, using both to achieve results is important. But what trumps them all is business acumen. That's the missing 33% that isn't talked about. That's the skill set where men are consistently rated by bosses as outperforming women. And, that's the skill set that the majority of leadership development programs ignore. 

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Knowing this, here are 4 steps to filling in the missing 33%:

  1. Get thee to a bookstore and buy a copy of Ram Charan's little classic, What the CEO Wants You to Know. It's a primer for business acumen in less than 150 pages. While you're at it, buy a copy of my book, No Ceiling, No Walls, too.

  2. Using the knowledge you've gained from the books, sit down and figure out how the area you manage contributes (or could contribute more) to cash generation, profitable growth, customer acquisition/ service/ retention and return (profit x velocity). Work at this until you can draw a clear line of sight from the work of your employees to the key business outcomes for your organization.

  3. Learn the difference between activities, results and outcomes -- and drive for outcomes. (You'll find out about that in No Ceiling, No Walls.)

  4. Learn how to talk to your boss, colleagues, direct reports, and strangers who might want to hire you, about how your leadership contributes to the business of your business. We call this, speaking the language of power™.

That's the 33% solution. Add this to your already outstanding interpersonal skills and professional competence and you have a winning combination.

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