Hooray! Glass ceiling has been breaking

There’s still so much gloomy, pessimistic talk about how difficult it is for women to rise to the highest levels of leadership, but I wish there would be less of this poor-us mentality.

Not because I am a chauvinist. No, it is for the opposite reason: it is because what I see all around me is women who have reached the highest levels. And they have not done so either because of or despite their gender.

Overwhelmingly they made their way through life having developed competence and healthy attitudes. Just like most men.

Admittedly there are those, both women and men, who have barged and bullied their way into leadership, and OK there may well be many more men than women who have done so.

But let us stop describing scenarios from days gone by, focusing rather on the great place we have reached, certainly here in Kenya.

It was in 1978 that management consultant Marilyn Loden coined the phrase “glass ceiling”, during a panel discussion about women’s aspirations in which she noted how the female panelists focused on “the deficiencies in women’s socialisation, the self-deprecating ways in which women behaved, and the poor self-image that many women allegedly carried”.

I don’t know about you, but wherever I go these days, I see no evidence of either self-imposed or male-imposed ceilings. On boards where I sit and in my management consulting assignments, around me there are women and there are men.

And the gender of the director or the manager or the technical specialist is irrelevant. Some happen to be men while others happen to be women.

Some of the men are more extrovert and assertive than others, and the same is the case among the women. Both men and women possess varying levels of emotional intelligence, with some more skilled at building win-win consensus, others expecting Trump-like win-lose outcomes.

So I just do not relate to the generalisations we hear so commonly about men and women being “different”, with the assertion that women are “more emotionally intelligent” and “better at bringing people together”. I know plenty of men who display these soft skills more than many of the women I come across… and vice versa too.

But as more women have gained levels of education equivalent to those of their male counterparts, and as they have emerged into workplace environments that increasingly assume gender is not a factor in determining career development, so many have risen up the ranks naturally and smoothly.

For sure there are still far more men at the highest levels, but what we have been witnessing is an ongoing evolution.
Where we are today with gender diversity is so much improved compared to where we were even a few years ago, and the upward trajectory of competent women has by no means tapered off.

So while it is easy — and common — to continue to describe the cup as half-empty, it is much more realistic and helpful to focus on how it continues to fill.

If you restrict yourself to snapshots in time you will still see many gaps and much to complain about. But if you look over time there is much to celebrate.

Of course in the political arena, than ultimate bastion of male chauvinism, the situation is radically different. Yet we must not over-focus on what it takes to survive and succeed in that macho culture where the rough win-lose dynamic of elections is intrinsic.

And we must also accept that in rural areas and in some parts of the country generally — yes, and also in many organisations — it remains hard for women to sit at top tables. But you see my point.

Some of my readers know that I am married to Evelyn Mungai, and I am happy to confirm that she has only reinforced my observations on the contemporary status of women in Kenya (not least herself).

In her recently published book, From Glass Ceilings to Open Skies, she included the stories of almost 40 women as they journeyed to positions of leadership.

And let me tell you, I am not at all sure they did so that differently than had they been men.

Great leaders don’t shy away from bold visions and targets

How much can your organisation grow: incrementally? Significantly? Massively? And how quickly: never? Eventually? Now?

If yours is like others I have been working with recently, some among your colleagues will feel that only modest growth is reasonable and practical, while others — maybe just the odd outlier — are convinced that transformative expansion is feasible.

What makes the minority radicals reach their much more optimistic conclusions? Is it the confidence and boldness of their personalities?

No doubt, but from what I have been seeing it is also because they have experienced at least one other situation where they were the lone voice proclaiming the potential for dramatic expansion and not only managed to persuade their colleagues it was worth having a go at it but then actually witnessed success in achieving so much more than everyone else had imagined was possible.

It is such a mindset that in his book Good to Great led Jim Collins to advocate the defining of “BHAGs” (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), as the outstanding performers he wrote about did. And this spirit of bravado was echoed in Sean Covey’s WIGs (Wildly Impossible Goals) in The 4 Disciplines of Execution that he wrote with his FranklinCovey colleagues.

I am also reminded of Joel Barker’s The New Business of Paradigms, in which he stated that it is easy to become paralysed in “the terminal disease of certainty” as one becomes trapped in an existing paradigm.

As I quoted in an earlier article on Barker’s healthy provocations, he challenged leaders to ask: “What is impossible to do today in your business that if it could be done would fundamentally change it for the better?” Including, of course, doing what would have it grow at multiples of the present rate.

So whether we’re talking about setting radically more ambitious growth targets or about doing a much better job of achieving them, it is definitely worth asking what it would take to multiply one’s annual growth rate, to explore what can be done to transform the achievement rate of even short term goals.

I like having participants in strategy sessions wear Edward de Bono’s different coloured “thinking hats”, reflecting different attitudes to life.

Enough team members should wear his yellow ones, where the sunny and positive colour leads the wearers to be optimistic and hopeful.

More should wear the complementary green hat, given that green is the colour of vegetation and abundant fertile growth, thus indicating creativity, freedom and new ideas.

And OK, we’ll allow some others, the pessimists and the sceptics, to don the black hat, reflecting a gloomier disposition. They will keep the others sober, explaining what is not possible, and why the ideas proposed cannot work.

My role in the situations I have participated in, mainly as a facilitating consultant but also as an independent director, has been to embolden the more timid black-hatted participants and also to help the yellow- and green-hatted to do the same, so that consensus is built around a common vision.

READ: Big picture thinking needed from the private sector for national transformation

In the process the optimists may have to somewhat soften their stand, while the pessimists must stretch and increase their appetite for risk.

So what can you do to rise to a different level: to become very much better at serving your customers, with both existing and new products?

To acquire or merge with another company? To enter into joint ventures or other forms of partnerships? Should you restructure, bring in new people, develop a new culture? Must you tighten and shorten your processes?

From time to time it is good to go away and dream big dreams, bigger than you ever thought possible.

But I warn you, the initiators of such dreams are typically outsiders and newcomers, not those who are familiar with how things have always been done. They may well not be from the same sector or industry.

They may be a director, or the CEO, or some middle-level Young Turk. At first such folk may be scoffed at, merely humoured.

But if they persist and if there is substance to their transformative thesis their view can gather irresistible momentum. The challenge is for the new bold vision to become comprehensively and universally owned. And that requires great leadership. Try it!