Do You Know the Moment Talented Women Lose the Will to Lead? - balancenow

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Do You Know the Moment Talented Women Lose the Will to Lead?

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  • 11 September
  • by Susan Jansen
  • Grow

It’s not when you think…Let’s start by sifting through some of the myths and get to the facts.

Myth = Motherhood

You wouldn’t be alone in assuming it’s motherhood and the juggle of work and family that drains women of the ambition to lead.  While we all know this stage of life can be exhausting, research from Bain & Co (1) shows marital and parental status doesn’t differ between women who are ambitious, and those who aren’t.

Myth = Women Aren’t Ambitious, They Don’t Want to Lead

Who hasn’t been in a promotion discussion and heard the question “Where are all the women?”. More often than not, this slides into personal theories on the underlying reasons.  One of the more frustrating ones is that women are biologically different to men, and this biology means they are not born with ambition. They prefer to nurture and care (interestingly people overlook the criticality of these qualities in a leader).  The same Bain & Co (1) study shows as women enter the workforce they are MORE ambitious than men with 43% aspiring to senior leadership compared to 34% of men.  At this point they are also equally as confident as men in reaching top management.

Fact = Women Lose the Will to Lead 2-5 Years into their Careers

The early years are even more important than we thought.  This is when both men and women are crystalizing their ambitions and views on what they want from a career.  By year 5, women’s ambition to reach top management has dropped an alarming 60% to 16%, while men remain unchanged. Women’s confidence in making it to the top is also halved and plummets to 13%.

That’s a Huge Drop… What’s Happening?!

  1. Lack of Supportive Managers

Women aren’t getting what they need from their managers.  At this stage, it’s very important that managers play an active role in encouraging women, creating opportunities and building confidence. Sometimes this is due to time pressure. Frontline managers are often at the coalface, sorting out critical issues and have a large number of direct reports to manage. This drives them to focus on tasks, not relationships. Some simply don’t know any better, aren’t given any training and copy the behaviours of their first manager and are surprised when women start to leave.

  1. Don’t Identify with the “Ideal Worker”

Women perceive the qualities that are being rewarded with promotions and success as qualities they either don’t have or don’t want. Some of the most important qualities they see rewarded include:

  • Self-promotion
  • Adept Networker
  • Put in Extra Hours
  • Take on additional High-Profile Projects
  • “Always On”

Many women don’t rate themselves highly on these qualities.  Even though these are just perceived (not real) criteria for progression, the perception of not being able or willing to meet them impacts both confidence and aspiration.

  1. No Role Models

The lack of women in senior leadership makes it challenging for women to maintain the confidence they will make it to the top. As they say, seeing is believing. When you add in the current 24/7 approach to top management (with enormous compromises on family life) it’s not surprising once women have the time to really look around, they start questioning if they have both the will and the skill to make it to the top.

Arguably the compromises many senior leaders make today are putting off not only women but the entire millennial generation.  An Accenture study (2) in 2016 showed:


“Only 14% of new graduates want to work for a big company”


I saw this in action last year.  I was in front of my team with two very senior female leaders about to break the news of a new business structure. I initially thought, “Isn’t this great?. Look at these smart, talented women and the change we are making” As I made eye contact with a few of the young high-potential women in the business I saw them see it too and smile at me.

After the usual corporate explanations of the change, one of my team members tried to lighten the mood by asking us all what our favourite TV shows were.  As I mentally whizzed through my favourites I was shocked hear the most senior female leader answer;


“TV?! My boss (the CEO) doesn’t leave me a free second to watch TV, I couldn’t name a single show”


I couldn’t believe it. Beyond the personal tragedy of meeting someone who has never seen Mad Men, The Killing or Veep I knew this would make her unrelatable and that level of leadership unattainable.

I had more confidence in the second leader who is incredibly charming. Unfortunately, she did no better saying she had no free time and when she did she goes to art galleries and cultural events.


“My heart sank. Eyebrows rose, smiles faded and I watched on silently as a room full of eyes glazed over to boredom”


It made me wonder how many C-suite leaders are living a life that up and coming talent want to emulate. I had a conversation about it recently with a group of senior women and we couldn’t name a single one. We went a step further to question what type of people DO want to sacrifice it all and agreed the research must be right that psychopaths are very well represented in the top echelons of the corporate world. Interesting but not helpful… so what can you do?

Three Practical Changes to Turn It Around

  1. Change the Conversation

  • Make sure you (and all frontline leaders) know the criticality of the early years
  • Invest time in understanding the whole person, know both career and personal goals
  • Point out paths to achieving goals using non-traditional examples of role models
  • Tell women you are confident that they will make it and you will actively back them
  • Get the ratio right between task based conversation and development based conversation
  • Deliver honest, actionable feedback on what’s required to reach the next stage
  1. Select Your Role Models Carefully & Make them Visible

  • Put unconventional people into leadership teams but avoid tokenism
  • Stop rewarding people who work long hours
  • Make it clear you pay for outcomes, not face time
  • Celebrate the success of people who role model non-traditional paths to leadership
  • Ensure events have speakers from diverse backgrounds
  • Take a look at who is hanging on your walls and who you give awards to
  1. Ensure Every Team Member Has a Mentor (and be a great mentor while you are at it)

It seems like most organisations have a formal or informal mentoring program in place.  When done correctly, it’s one of the best ways to support talent.

Personally, I wouldn’t have progressed into leadership if I hadn’t had the support of a good mentor. I met Enzo Valvo early in my career.  When I was introduced to him I heard two things.  1.  Every person who has worked for him would walk under a bus for him and 2. He is the best at his job in Australia. Knowing him he probably would have corrected that with the best in the world… I got very lucky.

His first lesson was on mastering the art of the long lunch.  As a focused person with some workaholic tendencies I struggled at first. But slowly our tradition continued over the years.  We would leave the office, find a nice restaurant (preferably one in the sun with Amaro Averna available) and spend the afternoon talking.

Sometimes we talked about big issues like saying yes to scary promotions, how the politics in the organisation worked, how to juggle work and family and that 80% quality really is ok. Other times it was small issues like challenging colleagues, the best breakfast places and why Italy is the best country in the world.

I’ve had other mentoring relationships that have been less successful and I think what makes our great is that:

  • There is absolute trust
  • We want each other to be successful
  • We make time
  • We follow up on our actions

In a perfect world. Everyone would have an Enzo.

In the absence of that I hope you take some of the tips we’ve discovered and help women, especially in those critical early years, to keep the faith.

At Balance Now, we offer programs and coaching to help you get all of this right.  If you’d like to explore this further please contact us



  1. Bain & Company – 2014 – Everyday Moments of Truth.
  2. Accenture – 2016 US College Graduate Employment Study
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