Early in my work as a career coach, I noticed something surprising: The women who faced the biggest challenges in senior-level positions had often been star pupils in school. They’d earned excellent grades, won numerous prizes and praise from their teachers, sought out one or more graduate degrees. Now the same behaviors that had been essential for academic success were holding them back in the boardroom.
Western educational systems train students in a very particular way. They’re taught to prepare carefully to complete the tasks that will be asked of them; to do lots of research and homework to discover the right answers; to pay attention to what authority figures want and provide it.
These “good student” behaviors—careful preparation, seeking outside knowledge, pleasing others, and adapting to authority—are also stereotypical “good girl” behaviors. Even as women achieve more success at work and in school, girls and women are still subtly encouraged to adhere to these behaviors by parents, teachers, toys, games, and popular culture at large.
Of course, boys are also taught these same behaviors in school. But when boys open their history books, read the newspaper or watch Harry Potter and Star Wars, they see plenty of representations of male leaders whose successes are propelled by very different behaviors. They see male leaders who improvise, take risks, speak up, challenge authority, and trust their instincts.
Girls often don’t get those counterbalancing messages. In fact, girls have their good-student behaviors reinforced as feminine norms in the media and the stories they consume. In short, we’re in danger of raising girls who strive hard to find the right answer and know how to get good grades—but who don’t know how to trust their own voices.
The issue isn’t so much that women need to throw away their trusted good-student behaviors, but that we need to incorporate new, complementary behaviors as we rise through the ranks at work. Here are a few of the key adjustments that all leaders—both men and women—need to make:
Learn to improvise
In traditional school environments, students are given the opportunity to prepare for whatever they’ll be asked to do. They can study before a test and do the reading before they’re asked to speak about a subject in class. Imagine the student and parent outcry that would occur if a teacher gave a test on a topic the students hadn’t learned anything about.
Yet as we move into leadership positions, we need to be comfortable with improvisation. A major client may asks a question we never could have anticipated. A key team member could suddenly have to take medical leave. A change in the market can make what was a previously a wise strategy into a very weak one.
Great students—who often have come to rely on careful preparation as their primary way of working—tend to feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, stressed, and unqualified in such situations. So they have to consciously work to become confident when they’re thrown into situations they couldn’t possibly have seen coming.
In order to improvise, you need to trust that your existing skills, knowledge, personal capabilities are sufficient to guide your actions. Schools often erode this kind of self-confidence. Students are asked again and again to turn to research, books, and professors’ lectures to acquire knowledge and internalize it. The implicit message is that students’ value is contingent upon what they’ve learned from outside resources. Students are rarely asked to speak, write, or create from what they already know. But that’s a key skill for leaders.
Great students are chameleons. They’re very adept at adapting themselves and their work, again and again and again, to each teacher’s unique preferences and requirements. Yet to cultivate our abilities as leaders, we need the opposite skill: The ability to recognize and stick with what is distinctive about our thinking, and use these distinctive traits to influence and challenge authority.
Imagine if our schools graded students on how well they managed to shift their teachers’ existing point of view. That would be one way to help train students in this leadership skill.
Girls’ success in school, which we are now seeing en masse, is bringing far more women into the workforce. This is an important shift that will enable women greater financial independence and life satisfaction. Yet those of us who want to see women represented in leadership roles need to reflect on what, precisely, school is teaching girls and women to be so good at. Do we want good worker bees, or game changers?
Women in positions of leadership will change the world for the better. But if we want to bring about that future, we have to teach both girls and boys to lead—starting in the classroom.