This weekend I am leading a pre-conference workshop in partnership with Penn State Executive Programs and AWESOME at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals Conference. The focus of the workshop is Women in the Workplace and we expect 80-100 participants as part of the pre-conference track. In the last couple of years I have done a number of presentations on diversity, and in particular women’s leadership and retention because of my role as the Head Coach of the USA Women’s Rugby Team (called the Eagles). I have coached women’s rugby for 20 years and it has given me some insight into how women behave under pressure in teams and that learning has proved useful to my clients.
First let me discuss briefly the idea of diversity and the “woman’s issue” that many companies have. I will start with a question that I get a lot in rugby circles; “what is different about coaching women as opposed to men?” I have coached a lot of men’s rugby over the years, including being involved in the Men’s USA team, and I can categorically state that there is no difference between coach men or women. Now I am not saying that you do not coach different teams and players differently, but I am saying that the gender label is not useful. I remember coaching a female player at Penn State early in my career that went on to play for the US at a World Cup and I have never met a player that was more “like a man” in her approach to elite sport. I also remember a male player who was an All-American who had a long career with the USA Men’s team whose approach was much the same as most of the women that I have coached.
This mislabelling of issues is the same in organizations. Often I am asked to help with their “women’s problem” which is usually described as their inability to retain women as they move along their career. The top of their organization is completely male dominated and they genuinely want to deal with the lack of women in their ranks. There are women’s groups, women’s mentors, women’s activities etc. that are all designed to help women move forward. And these initiatives, while impactful at an individual level, do not deal with the fundamental issue at play. Organizations have terrible cultures and environments that are fundamentally the same as they were 100 years ago, and because of this some people (a majority of which could be female) leave. In less progressive companies these initiatives can even depower the women they are supposed to support while allowing the leaders to say they are doing something.
The challenge is that the way the problem itself is described “we have a problem retaining women” means that meaningful steps to deal with problem are lost. The real problem is “we lose a lot of our best people” and the organization is only noticing women. They do not realize that the same issue that pushes out women, is pushing out men as well – just not as many – and the issue is that the expectations of the organization is no longer meeting the needs of the employee and requires a cultural and organizational fix.
What I have found working as an executive coach working with senior women is that they are very good at building what I term as their “personal environment”. They do this by networking and building relationships with people that can help them thrive. This is not just a mentoring/career advancement relationship, but a relationship that helps them deal with the tasks they do at work, their interpersonal relationships, cheer their success and support their challenges. It is creating a bubble in their company that helps them be successful.
This weekend I am presenting my Personal Environment Model and the participants will be able to leave the workshop knowing what sort of person they need to meet and connect with to enhance their personal environment.