Q&A: How Can HR Help Eliminate Obstacles to Women Leaders Reaching Their Potential?

In part one of an interview on our HR Works podcast, Cynthia Sax, Senior Vice President of Consulting Services at Caliper, discussed barriers in the workplace that hold women leaders back from fulfilling their full potential and what women can do for themselves and their peers to overcome these barriers.  In part two of this interview, Sax explains what HR can do to help ensure that women leaders aren’t being held back from fulfilling their potential as well as reveal more research-based insights into what women can do to advocate for themselves.


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HR Works: So, are there any specific steps that you would recommend that an HR department or management should take to help eliminate these barriers?

Cyndi: I think it comes down to organizational culture. Just as on the individual level it’s important for us to have that self-awareness, I think on an organizational level, that awareness is just as important. You can formally survey that with an employee engagement or culture survey to better understand the degree to which these barriers might exist for your employees to then be able to decide how you’re going to approach it. So, I don’t think there’s necessarily one size fits all in terms of how an organization might go about solving those problems.

First, we have to know what are the challenges and how do they manifest themselves in this particular organization and then to think about what are the best ways that we can go about removing them. So, whether it’s with training and education on diversity, whether it’s about re-looking at the companies values or guiding principles and how employees speak to each other and treat each other, whether it’s about looking at programs that are offered to all employees to remove some of those barriers, like bringing some balance between work and life and setting expectations about emails on the weekend and how do we handle things that happen outside of usual business hours, and what kind of flexibility for time off policies do we have so that those formal policies and procedures support the needs to today’s workplace.

Again, not just for women, but for their male employees as well. And we know that some of these same issues, by the way, are coming up for millennial employees who have very different expectations about the kind of work environment that they desire for themselves and the balance that they have between their work and their family. And then, lastly, to make sure that there’s a no tolerance policy at the organization for any kind of blatant discrimination or stereotyping so that it leaves room for all employees to be able to really be developed to their greatest potential and to be able to contribute to the organization in the best possible ways.

HR Works: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.

Cyndi: I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying to think outside of the box in terms of diversity programs. While they serve their purpose most definitely and can be extremely valuable, it’s really important, I think, to think beyond just the traditional diversity program.

HR Works: Okay. I gather Caliper has done research into the unique attributes, behaviors, and challenges that women leaders fact in today’s business environment. So, what are some of the findings that you have had there, and how does it help women and their companies?

Cyndi: Yeah. Great. So, if we talk about what some of those unique characteristics are from a personality perspective and understanding how personality impacts the world of work is one of Caliper’s areas of expertise. So, after 50 years of experience, what our research tells us, first of all, is that for successful women leaders, there’s not a significant difference in the personality attributes or behaviors that contribute to their success as their male counterparts and that women have … I would say that personality can be an equal opportunity factor and that women possess some of these attributes and motivators and competencies to similar degrees as their male counterparts are.

Successful women leaders tend to be assertive. They tend to be persuasive in their communication style and motivated by that persuasive process. They tend to be able to bounce back and bring that natural level of resilience. They’re people persons without going overboard with being distracted by the social aspects of work. They are capable of and comfortable building and maintaining professional relationships at all levels of an organization.

When it comes to how a woman’s personality can contribute to overcoming some of those barriers, we also have some key indicators, and they vary by barrier, by challenge. But what I can say is that our research shows that when certain traits come together to form behaviors, they can either support or derail a woman’s efforts to overcome those barriers. So, for example, if a woman is facing that barrier of organizational savvy, how to navigate the old boys network, we know that assertiveness, straightforward communication style, being comfortable building relationships with others, questioning the motives of those around her while remaining steady or level in her reaction will allow her to … It will allow her to rely upon natural compensating mechanisms to a greater degree than a woman who doesn’t possess those same attributes.

It doesn’t mean other women can’t, but they have to be more mindful at developing compensating mechanisms then. For work/family conflict, we know that women who bring a level of ability to look at things kind of from a cognitive perspective, that think their way through things to rely on their self-discipline to build structures and plans and determine how to make things happen in a planful and also a results-oriented way.

And to be open to new ways of doing things can be critical to her success and overcoming work/family conflict issues. And I would just add, last but not least, when it comes of overcoming stereotype threat, that gets to be a little bit trickier because what we find is that there’s a correlation with which the degree to which a woman identifies with her gender and influence, the degrees of which she might be susceptible to stereotype threat. And then, when we take that into consideration with her emotional energy reserve, with her tolerance for stress, again with her ability to assert her point of view and to be empathic to others, all those things tend to come together to help a woman overcome stereotype threat.

The other thing that’s really interesting about this one is that the less rules-oriented the woman is, the more likely it is that she will not be as susceptible to stereotype threat as someone who is more of a rule follower. And so, when you think about as young girls, many women were traditionally were raised to be good girls, to do what people asked you to do, to follow the system, not to rock the boat, so to speak, and that can translate into a really strong drive for or need for compliance with rules.

What we’ve been talking about today is how do we break down those barriers. How do we create new rules and new ways of doing things? And so, in order to drive that kind of change, one can’t be held back by doing things the same way we’ve always done it. So, we actually find that women who have lower levels of that desire or tendency to align with traditional right and wrong ways of doing things have an easier opportunity of overcoming those stereotype threats.

HR Works: This was all very interesting. I also understand you use assessments in your programs. What sort of things do you measure, and how does that help you?

Cyndi:   Well, in our Women Leaders Program, we have two different kinds … actually, three different kinds of assessment. The first is the Caliper profile, which is the personality assessment. Caliper profile measures how personality might impact job performance. So, it helps us understand how those innate characteristics that drive our behaviors and our competencies, how they may show up at work, and that in turn can help us understand not only what our full potential is on the job and how we can live into that potential, but what type of work are we best suited for.

Our research shows that there’s a correlation between one’s personality and job performance as well as job satisfaction. So, it can be used to help one kind of underscore and diagnose areas related to job performance and job potential. The other assessments or surveys that we use in our Women Leaders Program do two things. One is that they measure a woman’s preference for different styles of leadership. In particular, we’re looking at transformational versus transactional leadership styles. Transactional leadership style is one that kind of led us through the industrial revolution. It tends to be very focused on external motivations for getting things done, external rewards and punishments for getting one’s job done.

And today, our research shows that one of the only work environments that that style of leadership, telling people what to do and how to do it and measuring how many of those things they get done and the quality of each of those products is very effective in a production manufacturing environment. It doesn’t translate quite so well into the more complex business environments that many of us work in, in service industries and in technology, in particular. What tends to be the leadership style that tends to be more effective in those organizations is the transactional style in which the leaders role is really to provide direction, to gain buy-in to the companies visions and strategies and then to motivate employees to solve problems themselves, to be engage in their work, to perhaps take things one step further.

It’s an empowering, inspirational leadership style. And so, we survey our women leaders participants to provide them with some feedback on what their preferred leadership style is and how that might sync up with the work environment that they’re in so that they can find ways of either relying upon their natural preferences to display that kind of style of leadership or develop those competences.

And then, the third survey that we employ is one to really diagnose for each one of our women participants how each of them have experienced the barriers that we talked about today, how often has the organizational savvy shown up, and then, not only how frequently has it shown up for them, but what impact does it have for them. How much stress does it cause her? And we’ll, then, create a custom report for her that discusses the personality attributes. It addresses her experience with the barriers and challenges that we’ve discussed today. It also reports on her preferred leadership style, and we’ll help her weave all those things together to better understand where her greatest opportunity for leveraging her strengths are as well as some strategies for overcoming those potential barriers.

HR Works: Oh, well, that sounds like a great program for anyone to go through, I think. I’m wondering now if a listener wants to address these challenges, and they’re going to have to sell a program to management, what would you say about selling it and how it will improve organizational effectiveness?

Cyndi: Again, I think it comes back to the fact that when every one of our employees is engaged in their work and being developed to their greatest potential, organizations are going to be the most effective. And so, looking at the organization’s philosophy for developing their employees would be a great starting point, combining that with an evaluation of their current team and resource policies and procedures. And the results of their engagement survey are going to come point them in a certain direction and let them know whether or not this, in fact, would be an important opportunity for them to be addressing.

I often get asked whether a woman leadership program is not only necessary, but is it the only way to develop women leaders? And I would say it’s not the only way to develop women leaders. Other kinds of leadership development programs, whether they be geared towards high potential employees or newly promoted managers are effective across the board for employees in that kind of position regardless of whether they’re men or women. The reason that a woman leaders’ program can be effective is because it specifically should target those unique barriers and challenges that women encounter so that it levels the playing field.

HR Works: Cyndi, this has all been very helpful and interesting. Do you have any final thoughts to sum this all up that you’d like to share?

Cyndi: I think I’d just say that there are a couple things that really stand out for me in terms of important messages to take away for women. One is make sure that if you aren’t already self-aware that you develop the self-awareness of your unique personality, your career aspirations because there’s no one size fits all here, and how you uniquely define success. Secondly, that a woman really understands what her stress triggers are and what the potential barriers are that you’ve encountering and the kinds of results that she’s currently getting when she encounters those barriers.

So, a question I might ask myself is am I getting the kinds of results that I want to get or are there certain things that have either come up for me once or twice or, more importantly, those that come up more frequently or regularly for me. When that happens, do you have ways of overcoming those to get the results that are best for me and best for my organization? And if the answer is no, then the next step would be really developing strategies for overcoming those setbacks. Sometimes, one can do that by herself.

Sometimes, one can do that by plugging into or requesting other kinds of developmental opportunities, and sometimes, it’s taking responsibility herself or whether it’s establishing a women’s circle in her organization or taking advantage of materials that are available in the library, online, or speaking out at special women leadership development programs. Any of those things can be an important step in really defining ways and building skills for overcoming those setbacks.

And then, last but not least, it’s a combination of self-care, caring for ourselves so that we can care for others and being proactive and assuming responsibility for shaping other people’s perceptions of us. Not in a manipulative way but in a way that allows us to really make the best positive first impression and to show the rest of the organization that we have what it takes to be a leader and to start developing that followership.