4 October 2017


Our Views

coaching, confidence, female leadership, gender balance



In order to fix a problem, you first need to understand it.

What is bothering me at the moment, is that a number of wide-reaching programmes are being implemented across various industries to address the real issue of a lack of women in the talent pipeline. But the majority of solutions seem to have been put together with no root causing. The default answer seems to be to focus on soft skills to help tackle women who lack confidence, and fix those women who ‘lack gravitas’.

I do agree that confidence is an issue. But men have times when they lack confidence too, and I do wonder why the answer for them doesn’t involve a similar sheep dip approach.

Let me run through an example. Quite recently, a young woman reached out to me for some mentoring. She told me that her employer’s response to the lack of females in their pipeline was an 18 month programme to, ‘build confidence’. The more she talked about the content and approach, the more it occurred to me that this would be a really useful programme for the (almost exclusively male) senior executives in her company who had systemically failed to spot, develop and grow women into senior roles within their teams.

Interestingly, her company has quite a reputation within the headhunter community. The advice from the headhunters when considering taking up an offer at this company is as follows. If you are a woman and want a job, work here. But as a woman, if you want a career, go elsewhere. The toxic culture at this company is infamous, and has not, as far as I am aware, been root caused, understood, or addressed, so I can’t see that their large investment in a special soft skills programme for women is necessarily going to fix the problem.

I remember attending a conference where a fantastic woman exploded the myth as to why women in her company were not getting on. It boiled down to an executive choice as to which job an individual got allocated on completion of their graduate entry scheme. Having investigated why the talent pipeline included so few women in their late twenties and thirties at this particular company, as an engineer, she chose to approach the problem analytically. Using data, she pin-pointed the exact moment at which the problem occurred. Women (and some men) were not allocated jobs that enabled them to demonstrate the necessary skills to be considered for the next promotion. This was unconscious bias, and to be fair to the company, once they knew about it, they worked pretty hard to fix it.

The key takeaway for me from this story was that in order to fix a problem, you really need to understand it.

Early on in my career, as I considered leaving the company I was currently working in, I asked a more senior woman whether she had any advice for me. She suggested that by all means I should consider what job I wanted to do. But it was really important that I also consider what job people were willing to pay me to do. In other words, most employers generally, and quite sensibly, want to recruit a safe pair of hands who can do for them what they have previously done elsewhere.

If this insight is even partially true, then it is really important to get as much varied experience as possible early on in a career. Having done something once once, you are more marketable. You can then use what you know to push to learn something else. Collecting experience in this way opens up opportunities to stretch and grow into bigger and better roles.

Exposing women and men to a broad range of roles early in a career seems a no brainer to me. Not only does it make a person more employable – it also helps develop a person’s confidence.

Using an example outside of the workplace, consider the person who completes a marathon. Getting to the finishing line is a huge achievement. It is a confidence booster to know that having done it once, if necessary, it could be done again. If after the race, there is time for reflection – what worked well? What might have been approached differently? Even better. It is knowledge gained from reflection where a lot of value can be found. This learning, or perhaps a better label would be ‘experience’, is literally gold dust to future employers.

One of the young women I was talking to recently had an ‘Aha moment’. Having told me she lacked confidence, she then worked out that she had achieved most of the goals she had set out to achieve when she first started work. Being unclear now as to what she might ultimately aim for next left her uncertain as to what path to follow. This was impacting her confidence. Once she had re-thought what she wanted to aim for, and what moves and roles might get her there, she became excited and focused.

What was fascinating for both her and me, was that in that moment of clarity when she had put her plan ‘out there’, any noticeable lack of self-confidence had totally disappeared.

Companies are looking for cookie cutter solutions, and in my experience, they really don’t work. Without understanding the root cause of why women are being held back, you can’t hope to fix it.

If you are supporting your wife, or husband, your partner, your daughter or your son, you might want to consider asking the questions that allow them to think through what they ultimately might be capable of. And if they ask you whether you really believe they could actually do it – tell them – hell yes!!!

Helen Sachdev is one of the Founders of WOMBA as well as a Chairman, a NED and a senior executive. She is a mother of two who is committed to making the world a better place for working parents.