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#LeadLikeAGirl: Ignite Your Impact as a Leader!

By Tacy Byham, Ph.D.

Tacy Byham

Oh, man...what a year for women

In 2016, the theme for International Women’s Day was #PledgeForParity. Businesses and world leaders took notice. In the UK, the top financial institutions have signed a charter pledging gender balance. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, launched a campaign to raise the profile of women in the upper reaches of public and corporate life.  And, on Women’s Equality Day (August 26), President Obama announced that 29 major U.S. employers have taken the White House Equal Pay Pledge. Companies that signed on included major tech firms (including  Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Dropbox, and LinkedIn), as well as the likes of Anheuser-Busch, Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, General Motors, and Nike.

As we transitioned into 2017, we witnessed the Women’s March on Washington. The march was an emotional and inspirational event for my many colleagues and friends who attended.  The actions of the millions of women who marched truly brought to life the theme for International Women’s Day 2017: #BeBoldForChange.

The Women's March, along with hundreds of similar demonstrations by women around the world, show that women are finding their voices, declaring themselves, and being bold. This is the embodiment of the message that I blogged about last year in “Lead Like a Girl!”

So, we bring you a reminder of some of the actions that women, and all those who support gender equality, can take to ignite change in today’s world. We also invite you to an exclusive virtual presentation to unite with others who are speaking out for women.

From #LikeAGirl to #LeadLikeAGirl

In 2017, several Super Bowl commercials made a strong pitch for women. The favorite in my household was the Audi commercial asking, “What do I tell my daughter?”

But, in 2015, I was particularly inspired. The feminine product company Always used the Super Bowl to launch a powerful campaign called #LikeAGirl.  If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to watch it.

Over the past two years, I have talked to many people about their reaction to the #LikeAGirl video, and they say they:

  • Feel sad because the video perfectly illustrates how confidence plummets for girls in puberty.
  • Are frustrated with the stereotyping and the labeling of the term “girl” as something weak or even negative. It’s disheartening to consider that “girl” is becoming a 4-letter word.
  • Get motivated to reframe what it means to be “Like a Girl” as something positive, strong, and powerful.

Most importantly, they feel inspired, like me. I was inspired to think about women, work, and leadership and to consider what it means to Lead #LikeAGirl – hence this blog posting, #LeadLikeAGirl.

It’s not really a woman’s issue, it’s a business issue

As we objectively take a close look at women and leadership, it is not really a woman’s issue, it’s a business issue. There’s a lot of undisputed data that shows having diversity in your organizations and female leaders pays off. DDI and the Conference Board collaborated on the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 (GLF), a survey of over 2,000 global organizations in all industries. We compared the top 20 percent high-performing organizations to the bottom 20 percent, and high-performing organizations have twice as many women leaders (37 percent vs. 19 percent).

GLF Graph

But, if you prefer a different source of proof, I offer you “Shark Tank” (which I am sure is your source for all things “business”). If you watch the “Shark Tank” TV show, you may know that the sharks are venture capitalists who provide funding to budding CEOs for their businesses. One of the sharks is Kevin O'Leary, also known as "Mr. Wonderful.” In April 2015, Kevin told Huffington Post interviewers that he's making more money with his women CEOs than with men!

There are more CEOs named John than women CEOs

Despite all of this evidence of the economic impact of greater gender diversity, the scary truth is that the representation of women in leadership, at all levels, hasn’t changed in a decade! In the United States, the percentage of college graduates is presently 57 percent women—thus, the pool of talented women entering the workforce is exceptionally rich (Source: National Center for Education, 2012). It makes sense that women comprise more than half of the people in the workforce. Yet, less than 20 percent of the C-suite executives are women and only 5 percent of CEOs are women. And worryingly, there are more CEOs named John than there are female CEOs.

What causes this lack of diversity higher up on the corporate ladder? I have heard and read discussions about men being better at the “harder” side of business, while women shine in the “softer” side.  However, data from DDI’s recently released High Resolution Leadership, examining 10 years of day-in-the life assessment data and 15,000 leaders, tells a different story. Our research shows that it is not a difference in skills that is holding women back. There are no statistically significant differences in gender scores on “harder” or “softer” skills.

Is it a matter of confidence?

According to The Confidence Code by Claire Shipman and Kitty Kay—both prominent broadcasters—confidence is a key differentiator. A quote from their book sums up the situation, “Men think they can and women think they can’t.

DDI’s own GLF 2014|2015 research echoes this theme, with women tending to self-evaluate themselves as less effective leaders than their male peers.

While everyone needs confidence, women sometimes need a different voice in their head, helping them to declare themselves and be bold. 

Declare yourself early and often

Telling yourself to declare your readiness for the next step up is no more than a personal aspirational goal. Instead, I am a very practical person. I’d like to give you a few pieces of wisdom, collected by DDI’s own Women’s Networking Initiative, that should inspire you to make a change in the confidence gap for yourself, the women you mentor and lead, and the daughters you are raising from this generation of the workforce and in the future.

Words matter


Beyond body language, we also know that words matter! There are phrases and language you can use to project confidence, which you maximize. (And other phrases that you may find yourself saying that inadvertently undermine the confidence you project to others.) These suggestions apply to anyone who wishes to project a voice that is more confident—but these tips are especially important if you are a leader.

The first suggestion is to mentally promote yourself. It’s a bit like the recommendation by Michael Watkins in The First 90-Days. For example, if you are about to have a sales call with an EVP, then you should pause and mentally promote yourself into the EVP position. With this mental mindset, there are behavioral signs of adopting this attitude. And, like Amy Cuddy said “fake it ‘til you become it,” I believe if you DECLARE YOURSELF, the more confident words and phrases will naturally become part of your speech pattern.

With a mental promotion, you’ll find yourself behaviorally using ‘I’ language. I run an exercise with women’s groups and ask them to do a mock interview for that promotional opportunity. In the interview, participants are asked, “Give me an example of a time when a team or group, of which you were the leader, accomplished its goals.”

Well, you’ll be amazed at how often in an interview a woman will use the pronoun “we” vs. ”I”. Women soften their impact this way, and weaken their ability to get that seat at the table. But think about the exercise I outlined earlier in it, you were being interviewed and you were the leader!!! I know it may seem self-promotional and we don’t want to veer too far into arrogance, but we do need to declare our strengths and sell ourselves.

What should we stop saying? Here are three examples:

  • “I may be wrong here but…”
  • “Sorry to ask, but…”
  • “I’m not a math person, but…”

When you use phrases like this, you are undermining your idea before you even say it. You are apologizing your way into a conversation. This is a terrible way to get into a conversation! It’s like you are warning them before you ever get into it. To project confidence, we need to be a bit more strategic and purposeful.

Finally, there’s a sneaky little word that undermines confidence and sneaks into our language all the time—the word “just.” There is a difference between saying “just checking in on the report, how’s it going” vs. “what is the status of the report?”. “Just” is a permission word. In a way, it’s a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, and a shy knock on a door before asking, "Can I get something I need from you?”

As Ellen Petry Leanse observed in her blog post, Just” Say No, women use "just" three to four times more often than men. So, to project confidence, strike it from a phrase. Doing so will almost always clarify and strengthen your message.

What level do you want to reach? Well then, think that way and you will talk that way.

Learn from Bill Murray

Bill Murray, a leadership legend, right?

GroundhogNot really, but he is the star of the Groundhog Day movie, from which we can all learn. In the movie, Bill Murray plays a weatherman who travels to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the annual emergence of the groundhog from its hole. He gets caught in a blizzard that he didn't predict and finds himself trapped in a time warp. He is doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right!

And, that’s what we should take from Bill Murray. To be successful, happy, and fulfilled at work and in life, it’s less about acting more like a man or more like a woman. It is about becoming a best-ever version of yourself, just as our weatherman reinvented himself.

Tacy Byham, Ph.D. is DDI's Chief Executive Officer.

Interested in access to an online community to learn the skills to lead like a girl and ignite your own career? We want YOU to help shape DDI’s offering. Take our quick survey and you will be entered to win a Starbucks gift card.

Pick up a copy of Tacy’s new book with co-author, Rich Wellins, Your First Leadership Job. The book includes an entire chapter on “A Woman’s First Leadership Job.”

Posted: 27 Feb, 2017,
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