Women’s Day: How can women become better leaders, managers and bosses?

Let us choose to change the narrative on female leadership, invest in women and make space for them at the top and so that we truly have a level playing field.
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Recently, I was invited to a private group discussion on Clubhouse, the new social networking app, on the topic of “Women Bosses”. The aim of the discussion was to discuss experiences of having a female supervisor, what were your own experiences as one and what has worked or not. No names were taken, nor were companies identified which also helped make the discussion rich and insightful.

Those present on Clubhouse were extremely accomplished women and the discussion was fascinating, while some had pleasant memories with female managers, many had unpleasant ones as well. Sadly, we don’t have many women in leadership to look upto as role models to emulate or a standard to measure and so discussions like the one I attended tend to make us believe that mean female bosses are more the norm than the exception.

Women make up just 14 percent of elected representatives in the Indian parliament. According to Forbes, women in India occupy five percent executive chairs and ten percent non-executive chairs in corporate boardrooms. The Egon Zehnder Global Diversity Report 2020, indicates that women hold seventeen percent board positions in corporate India and eleven percent leadership positions. Further as per ILO, women’s participation in the formal labour force is at an all time low at 20 percent.

My own experience of over 28 years in the corporate and development sector indicates that irrespective of gender, one could have poor leadership styles. As a woman who has led teams very early on, I can very confidently say that leadership is a journey. You can read about it in books, but your style evolves as you progress in your career. I doubt I was a good manager of people when I started off, as I concentrated on getting the task done perfectly but don’t recall consciously and actively investing in people’s agency or giving them a platform to experiment and fail.

As I was transitioning to an official managerial role, I was part of a fast-track leadership program where I had the good fortune of a coach and mentor who highlighted that one of the main responsibilities of a manager is putting the person reporting to you at the centre of your role. My mentor constantly reminded me to be an active listener, to pay attention to how I communicated with people and how much I invested in their own learning. He emphasised the need to understand my team at an individual level and see my role as being the enabler for them to achieve their potential.

Unfortunately, many of us aspire to be managers without the benefit of having a coach or mentor help us think about what it truly is to “manage” or lead a group of people. Not all managers are natural leaders. We often fall short in our relationships with people and this can manifest itself in the way we communicate with them, the way we treat them and enable or empower them.

So, how can women become better leaders, managers and bosses? Here are my suggestions:

  1. Invest in your own leadership - Read about different leadership styles and practice them with intention. Ask for feedback from co-workers, subordinates and managers. It is not pleasant to hear about your weaknesses, but it is a starting point for you to make your course correction. Being self-aware of your own insecurities and shortcomings will help you address and correct them. Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with talented individuals as they will only make you and your team stronger.
  2. Find a mentor and/or a coach - Mentors and coaches play different roles and both are needed during your leadership journey. They nudge you to address your insecurities, help you think through your options and help you navigate through uncertain, unpleasant and difficult phases of your career.
  3. Enroll in women’s leadership programs - Finding a tribe of successful women to share your journey with is extremely rewarding. You will find a safe space to ask questions, share vulnerabilities, exchange strategies to deal with situations at the workplace and receive peer mentoring through the sisterhood. I have found that even if women are critical of each other in these groups, it originates from a place of love and respect and motivates you to dream bigger.
  4. Pay it forward - If you are a woman leader, know that you stand on the shoulder of giants who made it possible for you to get where you are. It is incumbent upon you to look back, make space and pull another woman up. Without the numbers at the top, it will still feel like a struggle and lonely. But with more women in leadership positions, we can have many more reference points and role models on what female leadership can be.
  5. Be kind to ourselves and each other - Know that it is not easy being a woman, let alone a woman leader or manager. Women in India do on an average five hours of emotional and domestic care work more than their male counterparts as per the Time Use Survey 2019 by the Government of India. We cannot even imagine what each person is going through. Let’s instead cut some slack and be kind to ourselves and each other, celebrating our journeys.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan

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