Are We Sending Women to the Slaughterhouse When We Fan Their Ambitious to Grow Into Top Leadership?

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Being a woman at the top of an organization whose ways of doing business and leading people have been crafted for men is never easy. Women who dare to pierce through and to raise to the top and into CEO are not just exceptional professionals; they are very often exceptional human beings who accepted the weight of the crown and who decided that systemic transformation cannot happen unless we become the very engines bringing this transformation to life.   

All that comes, however, with a price.

At VORNICA®, we are on a mission to triple the number of women CEOs in Europe by 2030 from the lousy current 7%.

Even so, we cannot ignore or not see the pain and sacrifice that sometimes come through in our women CEO development programs.

Here is the trick.

To grow into the top and to become the best version of themselves as leaders, women need what we at VORNICA® call P(P)RO. This stands for Purpose, Recognition, Options, and – the hidden, ever so important13th fairy – psychological safety.

Let’s take a look at purpose, for example.

As a distinguished board member who attended our strategic VIP executive roundtable in January put it, “women need to experience purpose and also not to feel that they have to fight for it. They need to feel welcomed in a board and that their purpose matters and it is welcomed there, too.”

Now, why wouldn’t it be, you may ask?

Well, for a very simple reason.

Through socialization, we, women, are constantly trained to keep an eye on and to nurture the needs of the others first. As well, women’s attention is naturally distributed horizontally, noticing happenings, needs, patterns, and relationships in the whole horizontal business and social ecosystem.

This can give women a massive sense of purpose and embolden them to take inspired action when the channels are ready for this natural, caring, nurturing style of leadership.

But recently we had backlash.

An article published in May 2022 in the Financial Times emphasized that more and more men are pushing back on diversity initiatives in organizations. More recently, corporate leaders in the US who made it their job to care for all the stakeholders in their business ecosystem came under close scrutiny from Republican congressmen in the US for being “too woke.”

Heck, in spring 2021 Emmanuel Fraber, the global CEO of Danone was fired in a move that shook the world of leadership, for being stellar on all environmental and social governance (ESG) goals, but lagging slightly behind in terms of net profit for the company shareholders.

The shareholder-first routine is still so engrained into our business thinking that not even war and the daily degradation of our planetary ecosystem is enough to capture the attention and engagement of the double-digit profit-first eager shareholders, whose key mantra is the same as Louis the XVths: “Après moi, le déluge.”

And this is where, in my view, lies the root of all evil.

On the one hand, we know we need more wise, emotionally intelligent, purpose-driven women at the top of our organizations. Now these women wouldn’t go there unless they saw room for their mission and authentic positive influence.

But on the other hand, we have ruthless investors for whom ESG is a nonsensical whimsy at best.

So, when a woman goes to the top, she doesn’t have to deal only with the natural challenges and struggles of a CEO.

She also needs to engage in a delicate balancing act between her inner sense of purpose and meeting the often contradictory needs of challenging shareholders, who hold the Damocles’ sword on top of their heads constantly, reminding them that it can fall any time they are not able to bring home double-digit growth.

Which is why I am asking the question: could it be that we are sending women to the slaughterhouse when we fan their ambitions to join top leadership?

In a recent phenomenal fireside talk with Hedwige Nuyens, chair of the Europe Women on Boards (EWoB) and Kirsten Anderson, the EWoB CEO, I asked this question.

Hedwige’s answer was inspired: “When it comes to choosing where to work, whether you’re an employee or a board member, it’s crucial to align yourself with a company whose values and strategy align with your own. Taking on a position if there is a fundamental mismatch in values is not recommended. However, if you want to make a change within a company, it’s important to find others who share your perspective and to work together to create common ground. Additionally, it’s important to evaluate your own skills and strengths and present yourself in a way that will attract the right board position that aligns with your interests and values.”

This is certainly true. In the light of the new EU Gender Balance Directive, which states that all publicly listed companies in Europe need to make sure that they have at least 40% of the unrepresented gender on all of their boards by 2026, there is a strong movement elevating women to the top across more and more organizations.

It remains to be seen though how publicly listed companies and other economic actors will reshuffle their business and leadership culture, so women don’t feel forced, but rather welcomed and needed at the top.

DO YOU WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT YOUR COMPANY HAS A VIBRANT FEMALE TALENT PIPELINE AND THAT YOU WILL NEVER MISS ENOUGH WOMEN CANDIDATES FOR TOP LEADERSHIP POSITIONS IN YOUR COMPANY?

SEND US A MESSAGE AT CRISTINA.MUNTEAN@VORNICA.COM OR GIVE US A CALL AT +420 776 574 925, WE ARE HAPPY TO DISCUSS HOW TO SUPPORT YOU IN ELEVATING YOUR WOMEN AND ORGANIZATION CULTURE TO THE TOP.

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