Many businesses nowadays are defined by complexity, disruption and change. Today’s most successful enterprises bring diverse perspectives and experiences to each new challenge. Along with being the right thing to do, diversity and inclusion offer a strategic advantage – especially at the leadership level. That is why it is critically important for businesses to look at the challenges women often face and clear the path for talented and dynamic leaders to rise to the top. Creating a work environment where women can thrive and implementing initiatives that support, advance, retain and reward them is not only the right thing to do; it is an innovative and strategic business approach.
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 their peers’ psychological safety and use the experience as a springboard for personal development.
But organisations are leaving unexamined the most efficient lessons these programs offer.
The often-overlooked benefit of women-only leadership programs is that they hold up a mirror to the organisation. When women scrutinise 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 organisation promotes effective leadership behaviour and can offer a portal into where the company succeeds and where it fails to foster an environment in which everyone can bring their best self to work. In short, companies can use such programs to improve the participants’ skills & assess and ultimately improve the workplace itself.
We interviewed our fellow EGN chair Mette Johansson to reflect on the topic discussed.
Mette Johansson worked in leadership roles across Asia and Europe for multinational corporations for over 15 years before she founded MetaMind Pte Ltd, a training consultancy, which provides learning programmes in leadership, people and communication skills. Mette has been a Chair with EGN Singapore since 2016. Mette is also the founder and relentless driver of the KeyNote – Women Speakers’ directory; she is on a mission to bring diversity to speaking stages worldwide. This has led Mette to be a sought-after consultant and facilitator for Diversity and Inclusion programmes. She is one of six co-founders of the global social enterprise, the Inclusive Leaders Institute, which focuses on making organisations equitable and ensuring that all employees feel like they belong.
Mette recently received the AmCham HERo award, the Asia Women Icon Award, Golden Door – REX Karmaveer Medal, and Insight Magazine’s “50 Most Promising Women in Business” award.
The edited excerpts of the interview with Mette Johansson are as follows:
1. In your opinion, how is good leadership defined?
Of course, first of all, being agile enough to adapt to the needs of the moment, as in situational leadership, is essential. Apart from that, my company trains people in Authentic Leadership, Inspirational Leadership and Inclusive Leadership. Because I believe strongly that great leaders need to be authentic to inspire others. By being truly inclusive, having respect for others, and being committed to walking the mission together whilst taking care of each other, one can be described as “good” or even “great” leaders.
2. How long have you been with EGN? What kind of peer groups have you been a part of? And briefly explain your experience with the peer group and members.
I’m the “Oldest chair” at EGN – I’ve been around longer than Nick! I’m chairing executive groups – the latest addition is the Executive Women Leaders group.
3. How can an all-female peer group be more beneficial for women leaders?
The rules in the business world have been written by men [and designed] for men. Just look at the books taught at the world’s top business schools. The authors of the books on the reading list during my MBA programme were all Straight, White, Able-bodied, American Men. A very narrowly defined demographic group has defined the gold standard of leadership.
Those who see the world with different lenses take stepping out of that environment to explore what female leadership is – to shake the foundations of what we have become to believe is the only right way to be and to lead – and discover that we can lead differently.
The atmosphere is different in all-female groups. Women will typically be more comfortable making themselves vulnerable faster and exploring who they indeed are and can be as leaders. Give women some time to explore what leadership can be, and they will be able to carry their authentic leadership styles to their workplace.
4. Why is it important to establish a trusted network of professional support for women?
Women typically say, “I thought it was just me” and “It’s so wonderful knowing I’m not alone” in questioning certain things and in what they feel at work. Together, women can build confidence in challenging a leadership style with aggressive wording such as “winning the battle for market share”. Today, companies still use words in everything from their job ads to their leadership description that is traditionally somewhat connected with testosterone, such as “looking for an aggressive go-getter” rather than “a compassionate team player”. The characteristics and values that we traditionally link to women, such as “nurturing”, “empathy”, and “care”, are strongly linked to what is needed in leadership today but still not ubiquitously accepted as core leadership requirements. When women get together, they can embrace the leadership styles that they feel is genuinely “them” and build the confidence to lead according to those.
5. What are the unique challenges faced by women business leaders?
There are too many to list in one article! In general, in the work I do with women in leadership, women may think that they are not discriminated against, which is a dangerous thought. I cringe when I hear a woman proclaim so on a panel. Because we may not feel outright discriminated against – but we are often dismissed as leadership material and discredited for the value we add. Biases mean that women who have children may be assumed not to be interested in a career. Our current system may inherently expect upcoming leaders, often young parents, to take stretch assignments that require overwork and travel. We know that this is typically an even more significant challenge for young mothers than for young fathers. Is it so difficult to think of alternatives over time to test whether someone has leadership potential? Wow – isn’t that an alarming lack of creativity that organisations can only think of over time as a measure of talent? How about we measure how upcoming leaders develop and support people around them? How about we measure how emotional agile they are? How about we measure tenacity and resilience? And who do you think will – on average – score higher on these measures? The reason why we don’t think about such solutions is because we continue not to question what the gold standard education tells us to do. We continue to do what we have learned and what society has gotten used to. We don’t see an obvious solution.
6. How has EGN supported and helped to improve women leadership throughout COVID-19?
EGN provides a confidential setting. Women were typically suffering more through COVID than men because they often took the care burden as well as the home-schooling one. Women have lost their jobs and left the workforce at a higher rate than men, according to McKinsey. They state that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 if no corrective action is taken. Being with like-minded people when we are languishing does us good.
7. What are your tips for women who’d like to join networking groups, and what criteria should they consider?
Networking should be strategic. What are the connections that can help you? Women are great at creating bonds, but not necessarily strategic ones. I was personally very unstrategic about it for a while – going from not networking when I was in a corporate role to joining loads of different organisations that didn’t add any value to me. From networking events that turned into parties for singles to too-eager business owners pitching your business in 30 seconds, it was only putting a strain on my calendar. Today, I am cautious about how I network. I have my circle to meet social needs, personal and professional growth, and networking to meet potential clients.
Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that it’s enough for men to be connected to different smaller “hubs” of people. However, women, in addition, need to have an inner circle of trusted female contacts to benefit from networking in their careers. So sisters, seek a network that will stimulate you intellectually, help with personal and professional growth and at the same time, ensure that it allows you to build an inner circle of trusted female contacts.
8. Finally, how can men support women in this journey?
As always, equality starts in the home. Fathers: take the kids a couple of nights a month so that your partners can go out and network, too. A socially, intellectually and professionally stimulated mother is a better predictor for your kids’ success than one that’s stressed at home. Employers: support women in networking. Urge them to take the time to network. The network will benefit women in their work, which you again will benefit from.
EGN Playing a Part Supporting Women Executive Leadership
The traditional, stereotypically masculine style exemplified by the majority of their senior-most male and some female colleagues has been considered as a benchmark since the beginning of dawn. Women expect their organisation to voice an appreciation of their leadership characteristics, such as listening and collaboration and not confined to traditional types of leadership behaviour, such as authoritative decision making, control, and corrective action.
Now with EGN Singapore, women and men have a safe space to discuss the issues that matter to you most in business and facilitate members to share their practical experience from an executive and leadership perspective. You can meet, collaborate and network with like-minded peers to connect who can further your career and business agenda and create a private knowledge-sharing network.
EGN is designed to be a supportive forum for EGN members to divulge and discuss critical issues around leadership, sustainability, a path to net-zero, risk management, or profit opportunities that confront business owners and SMEs. If you are an executive or if you’d like to meet other executives, visit EGN to learn more and register now to become a member!