More women are graduating from business schools than ever before and yet, women are still vastly underrepresented in senior leadership positions. Why is this the case and what can be done to close the gap?

Helping leaders reach their full potential is a focus area in Janice DiPietro’s work with clients as the Founder and CEO of Exceptional Leaders International (E.L.I), a Boston-based business consulting firm. For more than 30 years, Janice has helped emerging and next-generation family business leaders understand what it takes to successfully navigate the often choppy waters of an evolving family business.

E.L.I supports family businesses in areas such as growth, transition and succession planning and performance improvement. Janice’s experience with E.L.I, along with her previous role as President of the human capital consulting firm Morgan Samuels, has given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing landscape of women in business leadership positions.

WiFB had the opportunity to sit down with Janice DiPietro to discuss the factors that are still standing in the way of women assuming leadership positions, what skills they should hone to better position themselves within an organisation and one of the things women need to do that men are already doing.

Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

Do you believe developing leadership skills for women is fundamentally different than it is for men?

There are core skill sets, experiences and a knowledge base that you need to have when assuming a leadership position whether you are male or female. That said, women innately think differently about how we will lead and how we can feel comfortable being leaders.

There are biases in the world that women are still addressing while the surroundings are becoming more complex. The #MeToo movement is just one example of how the landscape is changing as women continue to navigate these waters in leadership roles.

How has the conversation surrounding women in business leadership roles changed in the past 10 to 20 years?

When I started my career, I was one of a handful of women in a big public accounting firm. Today, it is common for business schools to produce 60 per cent women graduates. Yet, when it comes to women in senior leadership positions, the numbers have not substantially changed. Whether you look at law firms, accounting firms, consulting businesses, the medical profession or higher education, the numbers are not reflective of the changes we would have expected.

What has been encouraging, however, is that more and more entrepreneurial ventures are being driven by women; they are choosing to start their own businesses at a much faster pace than their male colleagues.

Are family businesses further ahead than corporations when it comes to accepting women in leadership positions?

Ernst & Young conducted a global study and found that there is a higher percentage of family-owned organisations led by women. Historically, women have always had a major role in family businesses. In my experience in a family business situation, the matriarch has a tremendous amount of influence in the business, even if behind the scenes.

Women tend to bring certain invaluable attributes that typically mesh with the fabric of how a family business operates. Family businesses tend to be people-oriented and friendly. They are loyal to their customers and employees and tend to be open and caring environments. This is a setting where women can thrive.

Why have even family businesses taken this long to realise the untapped potential that is the female workforce?

For the longest time, women in general were expected to take care of the family. They weren’t supposed to be strong in the workforce. The situation is gradually changing, but there are still remnants of that outdated world view in our culture today.

One of the issues is that women are underfunded when it comes to supporting entrepreneurial ventures, and the result is that fewer of those businesses will succeed. Not because it was led by a woman, but merely because access to capital is more limited.

If you want to break that cycle, you need to make sure women have the same access as men to the tools that will enable them to succeed in the business world.

Making the Glass Ceiling a Thing of the Past
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash.

What specific skills can woman hone to help them shift out of a position where they may feel pigeon-holed?

First, you need to understand what you want. What are your goals? In what role do you see yourself within the business? Then identify the skills, competencies and aptitudes that are necessary to excel in that position and create a plan to accumulate them.

You can’t be afraid to give voice to your needs because, candidly, your male counterparts are almost certain to be having those exact same conversations. So, if you do not speak up, you are doing yourself a disservice.

This can be challenging in a family business where women are often seen as ‘the little sister’ or the caretaker of the siblings. If you allow that past image to stand in the way of what you’re able to accomplish, it can be very detrimental for your career in the business.

How do we distinguish between women who are born entrepreneurs and those who are born leaders?

A successful entrepreneur is usually someone with great vision and ability to market products and services. However, these are not necessarily the same attributes that allow a person to be a great internal leader. Sometimes, great entrepreneurs start out as founders and CEOs but then morph into other roles such as Chief Strategy Officer as the business evolves and grows.

Being a leader takes time, development and passion. You have to care deeply for the members of your team. You have to be able to look inward at who you are and, at times, acknowledge your own weaknesses.

Those are not necessarily the traits you need to launch an entrepreneurial venture. The best entrepreneurs and the best leaders recognise what they are particularly good at and what they’re not.

When is it ok to allow your emotions to surface in the work environment?

Women often feel compelled to hide their personalities in the workplace. Authenticity, however, is one of the most important leadership qualities. Women must lead with their heart as well as with their head because both are incredibly valuable.

Imagine the impact you can have on an organisation when you can connect on a deeply personal level with your employees. The ability to be vulnerable with that employee is something that people will remember for the rest of their lives.

I’m always saddened when women say, ‘If I show my emotions in this particular situation, I’m going to be labelled as weak.’ However, there is a big difference between being weak and simply being genuine about how you feel in relation to things that occur in the workplace.

When I talk about key attributes of women leaders, the most important is what I call ‘circular vision’ – women’s capability to see all sides of a situation simultaneously. This natural ability to look at a scenario from multiple angles – to know within their own organisations and clients what is happening on the periphery and to be able to process this multifaceted world and bring sense to it – is the number one characteristic of effective women leaders. Their willingness to see all sides of a situation enhances their persuasive ability.

Women can ‘zero in’ on someone’s objections or concerns, weigh them appropriately, address them effectively and incorporate them into the grander scheme of things. They are able to either convey their point of view or alter it depending on the circumstances or the discovery of information. Because women take into account their audience’s perspective, the people they are serving and leading feel more understood, supported and valued.

When people talk about women’s leadership today, what do you feel is missing from the conversation?

It always troubles me when ‘women in leadership’ is framed as a women’s issue because it is a humanity issue. Any time that we are not bringing our best to any endeavour, we are effectively cheating the world.

The conversation needs to be about how we advance our organisation and our people. What that does is it engages everyone, not just the women in this conversation. The organisations that have had the most success are the ones that have been very inclusive in this regard, so I think that is important.

Secondly, I believe women need to take ownership of this issue. For many years, the conversation was around what we couldn’t do or the barriers we faced. I often tell young women to notice how their male colleagues interact. They’ve learned to build great networks and help each other. They may be in competing businesses, but they still find a way to help each other out.

We need to recognise and own our own deficiency in this area. How can we help others who are hindered in some way? We must keep the dialogue going and keep showcasing the success of women who are authentic and bring their whole self to the situation. The hardcore data is there: more women on boards and more women leading organisations leads to improved results.

Image courtesy of Janice DiPietro

Driven by a passion for helping people, families and organizations succeed, Janice has successfully led and consulted to companies for over 30 years. She has experience in many diverse and complex industries with a focus on family-controlled enterprises. Janice founded Exceptional Leaders International (E.L.I.) to channel her passion for family and business success in a powerful new way, bringing together an exceptional team of C-level executives dedicated to guiding clients successfully through periods of growth and transition. E.L.I. uniquely focuses on assisting family enterprises in balancing family dynamics and business realities during these critical transitions so that ownership value may be maximised.