When women lead, workplaces should listen

McKinsey Research

For years, female executives have come away from women-only leadership programs empowered to do—and ask for—more, valuing the opportunity to examine their strengths and shortcomings in the psychological safety of their peers and to use the experience as a springboard for personal development.

But organizations are leaving unexamined the most powerful lessons these programs offer.

The oft-overlooked benefit of women-only leadership programs is that they hold up a mirror to the organization. When women scrutinize their own leadership traits and experiences, they reveal important information about the day-to-day environment in which they operate. If a company is receptive, the content of the sessions can help gauge how well the organization promotes effective leadership behavior and can offer a portal into where the company succeeds, as well as where it fails to foster an environment in which everyone can bring their best self to work. In short, companies can use such programs not only to improve the skills of the participants but also to assess—and ultimately improve—the workplace itself.

We’ve come to these conclusions through a decade’s worth of experience in a particular women’s leadership program—McKinsey’s Remarkable Women Program, which has helped develop female leaders from Warsaw to Washington, DC, to Singapore to Stockholm. Remarkable Women sessions generally include participants from multiple organizations, but many companies send more than one woman, and we believe that the lessons we’ve learned are equally relevant for organizations running their own in-house programs.

In this article, we describe what hundreds of program sessions and 150 interviews with participants have taught us. Not only do women and men experience work differently; not only is it the system—rather than women—that needs fixing; but there are three critical actions organizations need to take: they must broaden their leadership models, stimulate dissent, and encourage more effective introspection across the board.

 

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  • : McKinsey Research