Joan Bragar, EdD

Coaching for Happiness in Love

Can organizations “see” women as leaders?

by | May 12, 2017 | Leadership Development


My father told me many years ago that America had a “secret weapon” for economic success- our women!

–Yet in 2017 we continue to face a challenge:

How can organizations see women as leaders?

We all hold “mental models” – the beliefs and images that form from our experiences. These models guide our thoughts and actions, but they can blind us to facts that challenge our deeply held (and oftentimes unconscious) beliefs.

(See more on this in the excerpt from my book, Leading for Results, below.)

Most of the mental models we hold in our minds about “leaders” are about strong men who go “where no man has ever gone before”. We rarely hold models in our minds of leaders as people who don’t stand in front, but empower others to succeed. Yet this is exactly the kind of leadership that many organizations need now.

I was fortunate to have worked in a company that thoughtfully invested in developing leaders. Forum Corporation, a global training and consulting firm that served Fortune 500 companies was ahead of its time in promoting and developing women in leadership roles.

John Humphrey, the founding chairman operated in a unique way – he found, recognized, and promoted women to leadership positions.

Why was John able to “see” women as leaders?

Shortly after I was hired, John honored me, a new and young employee, by taking me out to lunch at the Harvard Club. There he told me the story of his mother, who in the early 1900’s earned a masters degree in education at Columbia University. She went on to become the first woman principal in the state of Iowa.
Wow. That was a story I never forgot. And John never forgot what it was like to be raised by a woman pioneer and leader. He had an image in his mind that enabled him to SEE women as leaders. While other businesses bemoaned the lack of women leaders, John was finding them and giving them positions of responsibility.

Though there are many stories of women who led at Forum and contributed to it’s growth, I am going to briefly describe two women leaders whom I know personally.Connie Steward, was vice president in product development when she hired me and taught me how to develop leadership programs that delivered results that clients cared about. She went on to become Executive Vice President in charge of the Northeast region.

After Forum Connie became co-founder and managing director of a consulting firm, The Crossland Group. She later served for over a decade as Senior Vice President for Habitat for Humanity Internationa l where she had overall management of global HR, learning and organizational development for staff and affiliate leaders. Her work had impact on people’s lives in more than 70 countries.

Diane Hessan, Executive Vice President, served on the senior leadership team at Forum for 19 years. She co-authored the best-selling book, Customer Centered Growth, and became a leader in the field of customer-focused business.

Diane went on to become founder and chairman of C Space (formerly Communispace), the leader in helping companies achieve customer-inspired growth. As CEO Diane led Communispace to 13 years of exponential growth. It now has over 500 employees, and offices in over a dozen countries.

[I will add that I was able to take what I learned at Forum — about product development and leadership programs that produced results to create a leadership development program that has been delivered to health managers and their teams in more than 45 developing countries.]
Connie and Diane would have done great, no matter where they were, but John brought them into Forum because he recognized and valued their leadership.

He built a company that attracted great women leaders, and gave them the authority and opportunities to develop their leadership capabilities.
He took women seriously. Why did he do this? Because he could see women as leaders.

Connie reflected recently about her experience at Forum:
“John looked for opportunities to help women develop leadership capabilities and encouraged us to take bigger assignments, knowing that there would be challenges,and that there were some risks associated with these decisions.

“But, he stood by us as we took on bigger roles and supported us so that we could learn and succeed along the way. This brought individual and organizational benefits.”

So many organizations today cannot find women leaders. I think it is partly because they have not yet seen women in significant leadership roles. It will take a reshaping of all of our thinking to begin to fully value the leadership contributions that women make.

We are in a historic moment of change in our social roles.It may take time for all of our thinking to catch up.

Women oftentimes don’t look like our stereotypes of leaders.
Sometimes we are accused of being too emotional at work.
Sometimes we are. We bring our passion and commitment to work great qualities for leadership.

Business research is now identifying gender-balanced leadership teams as one of the drivers of financial success.
John Humphrey knew this in his gut. That’s why he took women seriously.

This is a call for us to examine our deeply-held beliefs – to see women as leaders –
so that organizations and society can benefit from the contributions of all of our people.<

That’s the “secret weapon” my father was referring to.

From my book, Leading for Results Practice Five Learning and Adapting to Change

It is important to realize the limits of our own perceptions. Only 20 to 30 percent of our perceptions are actually determined by the information coming into us through our eyes, ears, and other senses. The fixed beliefs and models that already exist in our thinking shape our perceptions.

Creating assumptions or mental models is necessary for human survival. We need to order and classify our perceptions so that when we look at a wall, we know how to identify that in all of the figures we see there is a door to exit from. We know what a “chair” is from past beliefs and know we can sit in it. When people from primitive cultures who don’t use chairs see a chair, they don’t automatically know that this is something to sit on.

Children build up most of their models about how the world works before they are six years old. Our beliefs strongly affect and even create what we think we perceive. Very often it is actually the case that “believing is seeing.” Since most of our beliefs are locked in before we have even reached adulthood. It’s a wonder we can perceive new things at all!

Consequently, the first task in initiating shared learning is to create situations in which people feel safe enough to reveal their beliefs and assumptions. Only in this way can these be tested and validated. If we hold our beliefs to ourselves, we guarantee that we will become stuck in our own circular logic. We believe it, therefore we see evidence for it, and what we see confirms what we believe. The only way to begin to participate with others in shared learning is to begin sharing the beliefs and assumptions that we hold. Otherwise our perceptions will remain limited, incomplete, and inaccurate.

When our own actions and behaviors create results that don’t match our intentions, we need to be curious, and to reflect on what is missing and what we need to change. This continuous cycle of action and reflection is what enables us to synthesize our learning and use it to guide future actions. Every action that “fails” to accomplish our intended results contains within it an opportunity to learn if we take that opportunity.