By Mariela Dabbah

Female Leaders: Are You Looking in the Right Place?

Jenny G. is a 24 year-old Air Force Guard pilot who works as an actuary at an aircraft interior design company. Finding female leaders like her inspires me beyond words! A few weeks ago she noticed that one of the teams at her job was having some trouble and she offered her help. “I noticed they were having some communication and leadership issues and I knew I had the experience to help them resolve them,” shared Jenny.

Qualities of a Leader: Female leaders may be right in front of you
Qualities of a Leader: Female leaders may be right in front of you

She never expected the kind of answer she received from her supervisor via email: “Number crunchers don’t have leadership skills. In a few years I may reconsider your offer.” Really? At a time when companies are looking for ways to encourage and promote female leaders, this supervisor couldn’t recognize all the qualities of a leader in this young ambitious woman?

This is what happened next. Rather than believing her supervisor’s words and downsizing her aspirations, Jenny sent a note to the big boss suggesting that she might be able to help the troubled team. And she sent along her credentials: 12 years as a civil air patrol volunteer (which got her interested in joining the Auxiliary U.S. Air Force, part of Homeland Security), her involvement with the Red Shoe Movement, and all the other activities she’s always been involved with that clearly show she has all the qualities of a leader.

Impressed, the big boss asked her to come into his office and, after a nice conversation, promoted her to Program Manager of the team in question. And one more thing: The former supervisor? She now reports to Jenny!

Unfortunately, this is one of many examples of managers missing opportunities and overlooking great potential female leaders.  This happens either because they look in the wrong place or because they hold stereotypes that prevent them from seeing what the people they have right in front of them have to offer.

Qualities of a leader: They’re right in front of you

Missing out on some incredible talent can often be a function of old habits dying hard and of our tendency to take shortcuts. But if you’d like to avoid overlooking women (and men!) who possess the qualities of a leader here’s what you can do:

  •  Pretend your (metaphorical) glasses are broken and borrow the glasses of a colleague who has a different background than you do. Then ask yourself: How would Andrea/Tanisha/Bo/Michael/Ricardo look at this specific candidate? What would she/he see? When you do this exercise you’ll start noticing different aspects of people that you probably didn’t notice before. You can also ask those colleagues to tell you what they see when they look at your candidate so you don’t even have to imagine it.
  • Female leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Make sure you look in the right place.
    Female leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Make sure you look in the right place.

    Explore the lives of your diverse employees outside of work. What experiences do they have that might have given them a solid if non-traditional leadership foundation? Okay, they weren’t in the Girl Scouts, but did they lead their church fundraiser every year? Were they in charge of their household early on? Do they run a family business on the side? Keep in mind that female leaders come in all shapes and sizes.

  • Admit that nowadays leadership is no longer the exclusive realm of senior employees. There are many young employees who are natural leaders and who have practiced those skills in school, in clubs, in volunteer activities and so on. Give them a chance to prove what they can do and you’ll be amazed.
  • Recruit outside of your traditional top 30 schools. Often diverse talent doesn’t make it to those schools because nobody guided them along the way. They didn’t start preparing for admission early enough in their education, or they couldn’t afford those schools financially and didn’t know they could get a free ride if admitted. Recruit at state schools and smaller schools and you’ll find some hidden jewels that have all the qualities of a leader you’re looking for.

So if you want to avoid losing young female leaders like Jenny on your watch, I suggest that you start looking in less obvious places and avoid making any assumptions. You’re probably surrounded by these amazing women who are waiting to be discovered.

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