It is said that every constraint is an opportunity, and India is no stranger to constraints – especially when it comes to empowering women! According to the 2022 Deloitte’s Global Women in the boardroom report, women hold 17.1% of board seats in India. This is encouraging as the number was less than 8% in 2014. However, all is not well. According to World Bank estimates, the labour participation rate for women in India fell to 20.3% in 2019 from 26% in 2005. On average, women earn 19% less than what men earn in comparable jobs. There is still much to be done to develop more women managers and leaders who could be role models for other women.
At Global Coaching Lab, we decided to take a step towards solving this challenge. Rather than focus on all women professionals, we focused on middle managers. These were women who were on the cusp of leadership, who could be role models for other women. Based on Philippe Rosinski’s model of ‘Global Coaching’, we called our workshop ‘Empowering women into leadership.’ Having run a number of these programmes across India over the last 5 years, touching over 250 women managers, we wanted to share our insights and experiences, so that we could collectively contribute to the cause of increasing women in leadership.
The struggle for authenticity:
We begin every workshop with three questions:
- How many of you are authentic at work but not at home?
- How many of you are authentic at home but not at work?
- How many of you are authentic at home and at work, but not to yourself?
It is enlightening to observe the different reactions of these leaders as they grapple with this sequence. For many, the visible balance is between home and work, but when confronted with the third question, they start opening up to the idea that they should think about themselves too. In most parts of India, the female psyche is moulded from childhood to serve others – be it their siblings, parents, husband, children, or the organisation. This sublimation results in a deeply ingrained attitude to think of themselves last. By gently reframing on how they can make a bigger impact, we get women professionals started on their journey towards self-ownership, progression and growth.
The sacrifice of health – The physical perspective
We deliberately include the physical perspective in our programme. We include yoga as a form of fitness. Its holistic nature helps the participants appreciate their own health through multiple dimensions of strength, endurance, balance, flexibility, breathing, food and nutrition.
We noticed that less than 10% of women take their health seriously. And even in those who do, this is limited to one aspect of fitness – perhaps a 20-minute run on the treadmill. While poor health among women leaders was a concern, we helped them make conscious choices using the concept of life balance. The women were requested to assess how they spent their time across roles, and to make choices on how to spend it in subsequent weeks. Making conscious choices week on week helped them build a habit of proactively choosing health, much to their benefit.
Acceptance over aspiration – The political perspective
Sophia (name changed) was a senior manager at one of the largest petrochemical organisations in India. All through her twenty year career she had been promoted without having to ask for it. Only in the case of her next step towards becoming the Head of Department did she have doubts. Kindled by her assessment of her sources of power and her ability to manage the politics, she realised that her passive acceptance of the decisions made by her ‘higher-ups’ was no longer sufficient. Thanks to a follow-up one to one coaching, she was able to choose and secure the Head of Department position.
Sophia was not an isolated instance. More than 50% of our workshops were filled with women who took their careers for granted. They hoped that merit and hard work would pave the way for greater growth. It was only when they were exposed to the political perspective, and how they can proactively seek out various sources of power, and then leverage that power to engage in constructive politics, did they realise that they could have achieved far more much earlier. This triangulation of power, politics and proactivity is now helping more women take control of their aspirations, while skilfully advancing their career growth.
‘Looking down’ vs. ‘managing up’ – The managerial perspective
Another manifestation of the desire to serve for Indian women managers relates to their singular focus on managing down. Shalini (name changed) is a ‘partner-hopeful’ in a large consulting firm that we were engaged with. She discovered that her assessment of herself and her manager was diametrically opposite to the assessment her manager made of her and of himself. When we debriefed her on her perplexity and coached her to think of the root causes, she realised that she knew very little about her manager. This was because she spent most of her time with her team at the cost of ‘managing her manager.’
To a large extent, the patriarchal system in India has spawned a number of women managers who are ‘1800’ leaders i.e. they care more for their teams, which takes them away from managing up and across. This manifests itself as perception gaps, missed opportunities and an inability to leverage their differences. We used the Cultural Orientations Framework assessment tool to provide a vocabulary to discover differences, and then an opportunity to bridge and leverage them.
The avoidance of conflict – The psychological perspective
In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, American author and business expert Patrick Lencioni calls the counter-intuitive nature of high-performing teams as ‘Artificial Harmony,’ as opposed to ‘Productive Conflict.’ The women managers we worked with avoided conflict. Even if the conflict was likely to end up being productive, they were still reluctant. Going behind their positions to examine beliefs and behaviours, we discovered that women underestimated themselves and their capabilities for conflict. We discovered that most managers were not trained in the basic concepts of conflict management. We included an overview of Thomas Kilman’s conflict mode instrument and created conflict scenarios so participants could practise and acquire the mindset and skillsets for conflict.
Unleashing the ‘Sheroes’ within – The cultural perspective
There is no greater potential than the one we all hold within. In order for women professionals to experience the ‘unlimited power within,’ we organised a music and dance session that was devoted to exploring archetypes. As they moved between multiple archetypes, each one of the leaders experienced the power of connecting with the emotions behind each archetype. This was the most powerful experience in their corporate life. A few women broke down as they experienced the emotions they had sacrificed at the altar of work; some had never experienced the pleasures of the ‘caregiver’ as a mother, or as a ‘lover’ for their partner, or as a ‘destroyer ‘of the negative thought patterns that were limiting their personal growth. Archetypes like the ‘warrior’ helped them appreciate the importance of poise, posture, and preparation to build up their executive presence.
Discovering Meaning, Purpose and Unity – The spiritual perspective
A collage is a powerful creative medium. We utilised this for our participants so they could discover their purpose in life. Why were they born in this world? We asked them not to select the pictures, but to let the pictures select them. This was a successful twist that resulted in greater appreciation for their life purpose once the collage came together. For the Indian woman professional, this was a blessing, as she could now raise her sights beyond the immediate and utilise her innate spirituality to discover her larger purpose. A worthwhile experience to round off the two days that they spent with us.
We discovered that maximum learning happened when we interconnected these multiple perspectives. This unlocked further insights – with increased awareness comes better choices. With the application of will and skill, these choices transformed into actions, habits and results. We are always exciting when we get a call from a participant telling us of her promotion. They cite the heightened awareness they gained which led them to make conscious choices to proactively progress their career.
By reflecting on what we have learnt so far, we designed a simple model to distil the six perspectives of leadership. We call this model the ‘Third Eye’ since it metaphorically provides us with perspective, insight, direction and clarity. At the bottom of this model is the physical perspective, where we learn that we should not sacrifice health. At the top is the spiritual perspective, which aligns to the larger purpose of our lives and helps us gain vertical coherence. On the left are the psychological and cultural perspectives that provide a greater understanding of the individual and the collective. On the right are the career accelerators of the managerial and political perspectives that can help woman leaders achieve more.
We hope that these multiple perspectives and experiences will help the reader bring out the best in the people they coach. Through this holistic and interconnected framework, if we are able to influence more women to become leaders, then this article has served its purpose. Do remember that ‘A woman of substance is a woman of power, a woman of positive influence and a woman of meaning.’