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Career

There Are 3 Keys to Career Success—But Women Are Only Taught 2 of Them

Feb. 4, 2016

Research suggests it's a big reason the glass ceiling exists

One day into a leadership program, a woman named Keira was at a networking dinner, excited to talk about business trends with one of the male executives attending. But every time she asked him a question about the industry, he turned the discussion to her family.

Years’ worth of surveys that I touch on in my book, No Ceiling, No Walls, indicate that women are recognized for the results we achieve, yet there are so few women at the top of organizations. Why is this? Keira’s experience embodies the problem perfectly. Women simply aren’t seen as having business and financial savvy, according to research conducted by my consulting firm Leading Women, which helps companies close the gender gap in upper management. What’s more, because executives don’t expect women to have these skills, they don’t help develop them in this area or give them a chance to display their aptitude in this area.

We at Leading Women call this “The Missing 33%” because, if you look at the three aspects of leadership that really help people excel in their careers, women are only taught the two unrelated to this area—while men learn (and are assumed to know) all three. The three pillars of career success are:

Personal greatness: This is all about how you use your strengths to contribute to the success of the workplace—and my research tells us that women and men are rated by managers as virtually equal in this area.

Engaging the greatness of others: Not surprisingly, women are rated by managers as outperforming men on nearly every skill that relates to this. (There are a couple of notable exceptions: Delegation and leveraging your relationships to advance your career—go figure.)

Achieving and sustaining extraordinary outcomes: What we’re talking about here is business, strategic and financial acumen—and to put it bluntly, these just aren’t skills that managers expect to see or feel they notice often in women.

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This career-essential advice is also missing from conventional articles and education about leadership, which tend to over-focus on engaging the greatness in others and using personal greatness. This is in large part because foundational research on leadership was done on men, and these are areas where, in general, men need to improve more.

Also missing for most women is the understanding that, beyond a certain level, business, strategic and financial acumen are the door openers to advancement. We don’t receive this message informally and therefore tend to pay attention only to the formal messages embedded in the performance-management and leadership-development systems of our organizations, which tend to over-emphasize engagement skills and personal attributes. As a result, women aren’t given clear messages about how important it is to develop and demonstrate this skill set.

You might wonder how men develop their business and financial savvy when women don’t. The answer is that they benefit from informal mentoring and guidance into the types of positions that cultivate The Missing 33%. In contrast, because many managers don’t expect women to have business, strategic and financial acumen, they don’t look for or try to develop it in them. Just take the example of Keira at the beginning of this article. While I’m sure the executive she was speaking with was trying to cultivate his engagement skills, he was thwarting her ability to demonstrate her business acumen.

Read more: How Much Would You Make if You Were a Man?

Before you get agitated by these findings and accuse me of furthering gender stereotypes, let me say: Of course these patterns are general descriptions and do not predict the skill profile of any individual man or woman. Not all women are great with people, and many men are. By the same token, not all men have business, strategic and financial acumen, and many women do.

These patterns mean, though, that women benefit from the positive expectation that we will be good with people, and men have to work harder to demonstrate when they are—and that men benefit from the positive expectation that they will be good at the business, while women have to work harder to prove that we are.

In some cases, it is true that a woman is missing business, strategic and/or financial acumen and that she believes she can be successful without these skills because her interpersonal and team skills make her an effective people manager. In every group of women I encounter, there are those who say, “I’m just not interested in the financials. When they’re discussed in management meetings, I tune out.” To which I say, “It’s fine that you’re not interested, as long as you realize that you are creating a barrier to your own advancement.”

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Some women have business, strategic and financial acumen but don’t demonstrate it. When given the opportunity to talk about their accomplishments or those of their team or to pitch an idea or to critique a proposal, they don’t lead with the impact on the business and its key outcomes. As Anett Grant, a researcher on executive communication, reports, women are much less likely to speak in terms of metrics about their achievements than men.

So how can you work on these areas—and just as importantly, demonstrate your skills to your colleagues? Here are a few tips:

BUSINESS ACUMEN

1. You’ll sound a lot more business-savvy if you understand and are able to discuss this cycle (written about in No Ceiling, No Walls) and the key outcomes (metrics) that matter to your organization.

2. Know and be able to state your “positional purpose”—why the organization needs to fund your position and what tangible results you bring to the business (not just what you do).

3. Similarly, I recommend all women learn to present a business case for all of their ideas and decisions.

FINANCIAL ACUMEN

4. Look at your organization’s financial reporting (e.g., quarterly earnings calls), and understand the rationale behind its existing strategy, new initiatives and/or major changes.

5. With every action, team agenda and management update, make sure you demonstrate that your (and your team’s) activities are designed to produce the metrics and key outcomes that the company is looking to achieve.

6. Track external reporting on your organization’s performance and that of your competitors. These may include analyst and market analysis, analyst alerts and writings of analysts whose insights you value.

STRATEGIC ACUMEN

7. Keep an eye on the industry as a whole so you can identify threats and opportunities and take action or make recommendations based on what you notice. Setting up news alerts for your organization and its competitors will help with this.

8. Analyze the news releases your organization puts out: What’s the connection to strategy/financials?

IN GENERAL

9. When the opportunity arises, volunteer for opportunities to develop new businesses and work on future-oriented projects. And definitely make sure to seek assignments close to your company’s core operations.

10. Shadow executives at higher levels and in other functions to gain insight into how decisions are made at those levels/in those functions. Pay particular attention to the use of business/financial analysis.

11. Seek mentoring on the business, financials and/or strategy.

Take these actions to embrace The Missing 33%, and you’ll be well positioned to keep up with the best of the men in your industry.

Susan Colantuono is the CEO of Leading Women, a globally recognized authority on closing the gender gap and the author of No Ceiling, No Walls and Make the Most of Mentoring. Her TED Talk, “The career advice you probably didn’t get,” is one of the most viewed TED Talks on women in business.