In most organizations, what’s considered normal behavior for those with traits such as ambition and confidence reinforces male-oriented stereotypes. Using those metrics, even female leaders who stack up well against the CEO benchmark often show somewhat lower levels of confidence, while displaying higher levels of humility than their male peers.
As someone who has helped place qualified candidates into the highest levels of leadership in organizations, I can attest that having confidence isn’t a problem for these women. The issue is how confidence is typically measured by organizations. Changing the lens suddenly brings a different kind of confidence into focus.
Women leaders tend to be collaborative and value relationships. They give credit to the people around them, rather than displaying the more prototypical male confidence of “I can do it all myself.” By acknowledging the importance of the team and the contribution of others, women leaders don’t measure well in confidence as it’s traditionally defined. The answer isn’t to make women leaders think and act in more stereotypically male ways to project confidence and show ambition. Rather, organizations need to look at individuals holistically: at their goals, sense of purpose, capabilities, and core accomplishments.
To compete in today’s complex and fast-changing environment, companies need leaders who bring out the best in others. That’s precisely the kind of confidence that will be needed in the future, and high-potential women are often naturals at this. Plus, female leaders tend to be strong in areas such as persistence, need for achievement, curiosity, focus, assertiveness, risk-taking, and empathy—all of which also support leadership.
Much has been made of the need for women to advocate for themselves, “leaning in” to show their readiness for advancement. Indeed, part of achieving success is recognizing one’s potential and conveying it in a way that others see it, too.
But it’s also critical that organizations do more. Given that research has shown a correlation between women in corporate leadership positions and improvements in firm performance, organizations stand to gain by doing more than just talking about gender parity in leadership. They must do more to identify, develop, and promote the high-potential women already in their ranks.
Given the long road to the C-suite, a journey that typically takes 15 years, women who today are lower in the ranks need to be given better tools, coaching, and development that’s specifically tailored to them. At the same time, by changing their lens to see what leadership potential looks like, organizations will find women who are just as capable as their male counterparts but may exhibit ambition differently.
Jane Stevenson is the vice-chair of board and CEO services at Korn Ferry.