Four secrets of women at the top

By Staff Writer
November 2013
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Having more women in management roles is good for the bottom line. Research shows female board members in executive positions for listed companies impact positively on the firm’s stock price – proving women in leadership positions can boost a company’s performance.


But women continue to be under-represented at executive levels of business. The 2013 Grant Thornton International Business Report on women in business recently released, reveals only 28% of senior management positions in South Africa were filled by women, a figure that has remained unchanged for the last four years. This corresponds with the global average of 24%.


While the need for gender diversity in the workplace is recognised worldwide, putting it into action appears to be complicated. A Harvard Business Review study published in June this year, found, “Although boards say they like diversity, they don’t know how to take advantage of it. Women told us they were not treated as full members of the group, though the male directors were largely oblivious to their female colleagues’ experience in this regard.”


The study entitled “Dysfunction in the Boardrom” was based on research done in 59 countries. It stated women had to be more qualified than men to be considered for directorships and appeared to pay a higher personal price to become board members than men did. In comparison with male directors, fewer female directors were married and had children. A larger percentage of the women were divorced. 

But, according to some women role models, getting to the top of the corporate ladder is not about working harder but smarter.


1. Develop your competence


Business Woman of the Year 2011 and Discovery’s franchise director, Kate Moodley, says men often welcome women in senior company positions. “This does not mean women in executive or managerial positions don’t initially encounter some resistance, with people perhaps having to get used to a woman getting on board but as time goes on, your competence will work in your favour.”


She recommends that women remain true to themselves and their own way of doing business. “I don’t compromise on some things. For instance, in a male-dominated industry, there is often a lot of socialisation after hours. But I say it’s about service, about resolving client problems and upskilling oneself, not partying until 5am. On a business level, it may be construed as being set in one’s ways but the results will be in your favour. Be competent, be uncompromising.”


She is inspired by a quote by Reserve Bank governor, Gill Marcus: “You should be selected for a position not because you are a woman but because you are the best at what you do.”


This ties in with what course director of the Women in Leadership programme at UCT’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), Liz de Wet, calls a “signature presence” – the unique presence each woman has in her role as a leader. Successful women in leadership have developed their own management style, based on their core values and personal abillities, says de Wet.


2. Make use of coaching, mentoring and training opportunities


To develop themselves, women should be encouraged to seek out development opportunities and have the confidence to identify the right mentors. Coaching programmes and sponsorship initiatives can be valuable support mechanisms for women in leadership positions. 


De Wet and co. believe operating without sponsorship or mentorship in complex organisations tends to be a common barrier to progress. Such support can nurture inate leadership qualities and give that signature presence the opportunity to make a unique impact on the organisation. Without it, women risk just being subsumed into the dominant culture.


3. Take your time, pick your battles


Moodley remembers the challenges she faced when she started out in her career.
“I was quite young when I got into management and many people I worked with were 10 to 20 years older than me. The reality is, you have to win people over, find courage and confidence.”


Grant similarly says she took a “very steady” six months to settle into her new top management role. “I ensured I met all key players on a one-to-one basis and understood their particular business needs. I focused on having significant relationships with individual peers rather than running the risk of lumping them all under ‘the old boys network’ label. Also, I developed a sphere of influence way beyond my peer group and across several countries, which was useful for everyone on the board.”


“Looking back, an important point of discernment was to ignore silly comments and football conversations and carefully choose when to take a stand when something unacceptable arose.”


The fact that women often inhabit a different reality and bring other views and perspectives is part of the diversity that they bring to the boardroom table.


4. Know the value of networking

Grant says the time she invested in developing her networks was one of the best things she could have done. One of the common mistakes she has observed when women step into senior roles, specially in male-dominated organisations, is underestimate the importance of neworking. “One of the big consequences of being poorly networked often manifests itself in poor communication skills - not knowing when to inform, who really needs to know, not appreciating when silence and confidentiality are critical.”


According to her, not supporting other able women is also a common mistake women in leadership make. Moodley agrees saying she promotes the development of talent within her own company, emphasising the advantages of building a strong network of women within an organisation. She advises female leaders to take other women along on the journey to the top as this benefits leaders, employees, as well as the company in the long run.


While it cannot be disputed there is a need for companies to do more in terms of buying into gender diversity and the promotion of talent development, women should realise they already have many of the tools and abilities needed for success at their disposal. Focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses and tapping into personal core values to develop a signature presence can be regarded as pivotal to success in the business world.


What successful women in business share, says Grant, is “a winning combination of ability, good networks, sponsorship and courage.”  PF