Helping Us All by Addressing the Leadership Imbalance
May 1st, 2020
Recently, I attended a research event that explored the experiences and challenges women face in transitioning to senior leadership roles in fundraising. The title of the excellent research says it all:
‘Missing Out: Understanding the female leadership gap in fundraising’
Four issues struck me in relation to the current leadership imbalance, which I believe are relevant to almost all sectors, not just fundraising:
(ii) A Lack of confidence/Imposter syndrome
(iii) Short-termism and its impact on strategy and culture
(iv) Perspective: unrealistic expectations as to what is ‘enough‘
In this blog, I aim to elaborate on these four issues and highlight what can be done to address them.
At times, being at the research event proved very uncomfortable for me, as a man. The stories shared about sexism were loathsome and the extent to which gender stereotyping takes place (75% of female fundraisers have faced gender stereotyping in their role) was deeply saddening.
What can be done? I have three suggestions:
Raise awareness amongst male leaders and trustees
Awareness of the problem is the first step to addressing it. I felt it was a shame that, at the launch event, which was attended by around 100 people, the number of men in the room was in single figures. Consequently, make it your goal to share the report with at least three male leaders you know.
Create opportunities for male leaders to be the ‘odd one out’
Privilege can be thought of as anything you take for granted. While I like to think that I have always been egalitarian, this value was sharpened during my role as Chief Executive of the Australian aboriginal organisation, Rumbalara. During my tenure, being on the receiving end of racism, sexism and ageism increased my appreciation of its impact. Furthermore, it was hugely valuable to simply experience what it’s like to be in the minority. It made me appreciate that being in the majority was something I had taken for granted.
Let’s be optimistic and postulate that the behaviour of some male leaders is down to ignorance, rather than malice. To address the ignorance, training in areas such as unconscious bias can be very helpful. However, I believe it would also be incredibly valuable if experiencing being the ‘odd one out’ became a standard part of any man’s induction into a leadership role. Such experience does not have to be as dramatic as being seconded to an aboriginal organisation on the other side of the world! There are numerous ways of surrounding yourself with people who are not like you. Simply going to events which are almost exclusively attended by women can be enough.
For leaders more broadly, spending time in institutions, societies or even pubs that have a very different social and economic demographic to the ones you usually frequent can be insightful. If possible, going to parts of your town/city where your skin colour puts you in a minority can have an equally powerful impact.
A key aspect of high performing teams is what is termed ‘psychological safety’. An overview of this term can be found here. In short though, if you feel you have psychological safety in a group, you feel able to be candid and honest. You feel the team has a positive regard for you and is sensitive to your emotions. Equally, you have a positive regard for the team and are sensitive to the moods of others. A key characteristic of teams with ‘psychological safety’ is equal ‘air time’: no one consistently speaks more in meetings than anyone else.
Do your teams have equal air time? How can you find out? Technology can help. Apps like GenderAvenger can be used to analyse how much time men and women are talking for in a typical meeting. A consistent imbalance could open up a useful conversation.
Confidence and Imposter Syndrome
A lack of confidence and/or a sense of imposter syndrome were also raised at the research event. In my role as deliverer of The Institute of Fundraising’s Future Leaders Programme, this is something I see a lot (in both men and women). The Future Leaders Programme is designed to help those who have either just started a formal leadership position, or for those who are at a career crossroads and are asking themselves:
Do I want to take up a formal leadership position?
What does authentic leadership look like for me?
Find a Good Boss
How can a lack of confidence/imposter syndrome be addressed? In my experience, the most effective way is to ensure it doesn’t arise in the first place! I’ve observed hundreds of staff members who’ve caught the syndrome and hundreds who have not. While correlation does not always equal causation, the most common distinguishing feature of those without the ‘disease’, is that they have a great boss. Consequently, when applying for a role, be sure to interview your boss as much as they are interviewing you. Speak to those who are/have been managed by them. How effusive are they about working for them? A significant number of ‘lukewarm’ appraisals should be taken as a warning sign.
Find Yourself a Mentor or Coach
A detailed review of both mentoring and coaching is a blog post in itself, but an insight into both can be found by clicking here. Essentially, both can cultivate the new mind-sets and behaviours required to be more confident. A mentor does not have to be some sort of oracle; some of my most valuable mentors have been peers. While coaching can incur a cost, the impact of a good coach should repay such an investment many times over. The key to either is simply to ask and give it a go.
Become a Trustee
Becoming a trustee is an opportunity to take on a genuine, but collective, leadership role. In doing so, many realise how much they already know and how much value they can contribute in a leadership role. The experience also proves incredibly valuable if you decide to take up a permanent leadership role, as such roles are very likely to require significant Board engagement.
Short-termism and its impact on strategy and culture
It’s commonly cited that many senior leadership roles are incompatible with caring responsibilities, and more fundamentally, with a balanced life. The reluctance of many organisations to allow part-time, shared and flexible working is often cited as a leading cause of the problem. Currently, since women are more likely to take on caring responsibilities, they are most impacted by the relative scarcity of the above practices.
In my view, the conversation needs to change. Currently, it often focuses on the difficulties and challenges of implementing flexible working practices. Instead, let the facts speak for themselves. Not only does flexible working lead to happier, more loyal staff, it leads to more income. In short, if you want to maximise your organisation’s impact to its stakeholders and beneficiaries, then flexible working should be the default way in which you work.
However, I think a more fundamental change also needs to take place, one in which organisations deprioritise short term targets and reprioritise longer term aims. Consider the following thought experiment:
A charity is recruiting for a new Director of Fundraising. Having completed the final round of the interview process, two candidates have performed equally well. Candidate A is female, recently married and has stated that they would like to start a family soon. Candidate B is male, has two adult children and has had a vasectomy to prevent having any more children. I realise it’s unlikely that the recruitment panel would ascertain this information, but for the basis of this thought experiment, let’s assume they have!
If the charity’s sole measure of success for fundraising is whether it achieves its ambitious 18 month target, then based purely on the above facts and criteria, selecting Candidate B would be the rational choice. This is because, given everything else being equal, Candidate B has a lower risk of taking extended time off in the next 18 months. Given the prioritisation of a short-term target, the potential impact of such a risk is significant. I realise that if the charity made their recruitment decision on this basis, it would be acting unlawfully (based on UK employment legislation). Unfortunately though, in my experience, this thought experiment is often played out in real life; it’s just that assumptions replace facts.
However, if the charity’s measure of success for fundraising is to hire and retain exceptional people and see fundraising income grow over a 10 year period, then Candidate B loses his preferential status. In addition to being more egalitarian, this approach also avoids the dangers of short termism and excessive goal setting. While such dangers are well researched and documented, many leaders remain unaware of them. Therefore, such information needs to find its way into more Board meetings and interview panels. Consequently, set yourself the goal of sharing this research with at least two Boards you know.
Perspective: unrealistic expectations as to what is ‘enough’
The last issue is the most fundamental. I believe we need to recalibrate our individual and collective sense of what is ‘enough’. As a former Chair of a social enterprise, I always asked the CEO to work with the team to satisfy themselves (not me or the Board) that the strategy we had collectively developed was achievable in the time we’d set aside. I did not prescribe how this should be done, only that it was conducted and that ultimately the team was confident the strategy was achievable. Conducting such a ‘sanity check’ seemed like common sense: there’s no point in committing to a strategy that staff don’t have confidence in achieving. However, many people have commented on how rare it is to conduct such an exercise. Sadly, it’s all too common to hear a training participant, or someone I mentor, articulate being asked to achieve more and more challenging targets with fewer resources. At the same time, they have incredibly high expectations in their role as a parent, partner, friend, sibling, son or daughter. Consequently, they often feel overwhelmed and unhappy.
The root cause of this dynamic is the expectation that we can always and should always ‘have it all’. I believe such an expectation is both pernicious and unachievable. We need to be kinder to ourselves. ‘It’s OK to be not OK’ and ‘done is often better than perfect’ are mantras I’d like us all be comfortable embracing. In my view, learning to have a genuine appreciation for having ‘enough’, rather than ‘it all’, is not a sign of defeat, but the way to sustainable contentment and success.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Sign up to get the latest news.Sign up now
Connect with us
Follow and interact with mch.