Think bigger, play bigger

Want to fulfil your potential as a woman in business? Here’s where to start


“What’s lost when women don’t fulfil their potential?” asks Kathleen O’Connor, Clinical Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS).

It’s not a rhetorical question. During her many years of research into gender – including how women handle stress and how feminine facial features influence the way people are perceived in the workplace – Professor O’Connor has spoken to hundreds of women at all stages of their careers. One word she hears time and again in these conversations is “regret”.

Now, she and Herminia Ibarra, Charles Handy Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS – an expert on professional and leadership development who has been studying career transitions and reinventions for two decades – aim to banish career-related disappointments for participants on their new Women in Business programme, aimed at women looking to supercharge their careers. 

Professor Ibarra explains: “There has been plenty of research that shows that women come into organisations with high ambitions, wanting to get into senior roles, and then the ambition gap increases because they get discouraged and don’t get as much support as they need.

“We offer research-based insight into what it takes to reach the top. We know the formula, we share it. Then when women go back to work, they have access to our toolkit.”

Women in Business aims to benefit early- to mid-career women who want to move into senior roles. Achieving one’s potential, Professor O’Connor points out, is not only advantageous for women, but hugely advantageous for their companies. “Without playing bigger, all of the talent, all of the skill, all of the ‘heads and hearts’ women could bring to the lives of others is lost.” 

“You don’t have to play small,” she adds. Many women find themselves trapped in roles that they don’t have the tools to negotiate up from. “We encourage women to think bigger and play bigger.”

The programme is structured around developing core career skills as if they were muscles – from networking, negotiation and influence, to managing others.  

“Being among a minority in an organisation and in an executive programme carries with it some obstacles. “Sometimes you feel you can’t express what you want to express, you don’t know how the world really sees your opinions or input. We want women to develop confidence and credibility, which gives them courage to step up and speak out.”

While researching her bestseller Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Professor Ibarra discovered there’s a typical journey women in business take. Starting out, she says, they tend not to see the barriers at first. “Then, with time, they see some things, and think, ‘Is it me, is it real, or am I overreacting? Was that really a sexist thing that happened, I don’t want to overreact…’ And then you get to a point, often, where you say, ‘Oh, shit, there really are barriers here.’”

At that point, as men rise through the ranks, some women might say, “‘That’s meritocracy: people who put in more hours are going to get more promotions; and others will say, ‘That’s a serious systemic injustice, because I have to take care of my kids, so I’m going to have less facetime in the office.’ It all depends on your perspective.” 

Three frameworks to navigate your way to the top

Women in Business offers three core frameworks to enable women to navigate demanding workplaces to their advantage:

“Number one, manage how you spend your time. Make sure your job isn’t only how it’s defined for you by others – instead use it as a platform to learn new things and add skills. Take on, if you can, new projects. Young women in particular tend to be competent and conscientious, and that keeps them stuck in low-visibility situations,” Professor Ibarra says. “You need to learn to leverage your job to make it more visible and more of a platform to connect to people, and how to do new things that are in demand.”

The second element is about being really mindful of your network and learning to be strategic about it. “It’s not using people, it’s how everybody gets things done,” Professor Ibarra says.

The final element is being willing to come out of your comfort zone to do things that might not feel natural – learning how to be more memorable when you make a presentation, for example, or thinking about your presence and, stylistically, how you’re coming across. “One mustn’t think about these things as a tax on your authenticity, but as ways of learning how to influence more effectively and connect to people.”

“I’ve lived a lot of these dynamics,” she says. “A lot of what I experienced about having to make a trade-off between doing what it took to be successful and doing what felt authentic has informed the work I do, the research I do, the way I write about it.” 

Ibarra found in her extensive research that women often had to make choices or trade-offs when it came to connecting with senior people at work. They could either connect based on factors they had in common, or because someone could help them, but she found that it was harder to have the same person tick all the boxes – whereas for men their networks tended to overlap.

“As a result, women tend to have functionally differentiated networks. They have one for getting things done and another for the more social and friendly stuff.” 

An online programme such as this couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time, when social distancing guidelines prevent us from connecting as we normally would with peers and working from home appears to be negatively impacting women in particular. Research so far shows that the pandemic has hit women the hardest. “Housework, homework, family care, schooling, has disproportionately fallen to women.”

“There’s evidence that women haven’t been able to produce as much [during the pandemic] as they have been able to in the past because of the restrictions on them,” Professor O’Connor says. “I’m sure we’ll see evidence of women leaving the workforce as it becomes difficult for families to balance. In academia, we see that women have submitted fewer research papers. This has consequences for a woman’s entire career. It’s more evidence that Covid is impacting women.”

“When will be your next investment in yourself?”

Recessions are not kind to women, she adds. But this demands a critical question of those who want to succeed: “When will be your next investment in yourself?”

The payoff will be substantial, she promises. “Time is short. It’s a scarce resource that just got scarcer during the pandemic. Studies show we’re working more hours than before, despite commuting less. We’ve designed this programme so it’s achievable timewise – it’s all online, for a few hours a week. The goal is to make the payoff worth the investment.” 

Something the professors have developed for the new programme is the idea of helping women understand how important it is to have sponsors in their corner, and how to find and develop those relationships, so women can be more proactive. You don’t get into the jobs that lead to the top unless you have senior people who are advocating for you, Professor Ibarra explains. “Women don’t tend to fall into those roles naturally.” 

It’s depressing, but there’s this idea of the “glass cliff” – where women are more likely to be assigned to senior leadership roles when the organisation faces a crisis. “Is it because there’s so little to lose, so why not go with a women, or is it that men step back?” asks Professor O’Connor.

The upside is that it challenges the fundamental idea that women can’t handle stress. “Women do handle stress differently. Evidence shows that women are more likely to ‘tend and befriend’. Men tend to fight or flight. In times of stress, women turn to connecting with others, building relationships, reinforcing that social structure that gives them the support they need to continue moving forward. This is very productive.”

“We help women identify, set and imagine ambitious goals that mean they have to stretch and develop in ways they hadn’t thought possible.”

At all stages of the Women in Business programme, women are encouraged to ask, ‘Who am I? Who do I want to be?’ Are you stepping up into a bigger role? Imagine what’s possible for yourself. The reimagining starts with thinking about goals. “We help women identify, set and imagine ambitious goals that mean they have to stretch and develop in ways they hadn’t thought possible.”

“We find that women come away with much more ambitious goals than they’d initially articulated,” O’Connor says, “and with greater confidence in their ability to execute. We really push women to think bigger. We don’t just work you hard for four weeks. We uncover your weaknesses and gaps to help you uncover your strengths.”

The result is that participants will leave with “a real sense of optimism”. “There’s great joy in recognising you’re not alone, that you can get through this with the support of women around you.” 

“In this environment, with everything that’s going on, you should be investing in yourself,” Professor O’Connor reiterates. “You shouldn’t be putting these things on hold.

“You want to emerge from this even stronger than when you started. So this is a real opportunity.”


Women in Business

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