By Kim Stephens
It is no longer enough to recognize the value of women in the workplace, or even to encourage growth. To meet business objectives in the future, organizations of all sizes need to create an environment where women can thrive and build careers, where they have opportunities to stretch their skills and take on visible roles, and where they are encouraged to integrate work and life in a way that works for them.
We need to reach out to women early or mid-career to learn more about potential inhibitors and career development needs and desires. This is how we ensure we build a diverse leadership pipeline for the future.
IBM recently conducted the 2012-2013 Advancing Women at IBM Executive Research Study, with more than 600 IBM executives from around the world to find out more about their career journeys. In the interview portion of the study we included questions on topics such as Work/Life Integration, Building Professional Eminence, and Building a High Performance Culture. By gleaning this information from our current women executives, we felt we could give our future women leaders invaluable insight into what it takes to have a successful career.
Based on over 279 pages of interview data, we brought together the knowledge gathered – challenges, obstacles and successes – into the study paper Your Journey to Executive: Insights from IBM Women Executives.
Three themes emerged from the study: 1) Be visible; 2) Plan your career; and 3) Integrate work and life.
Be visible. 95 percent of executive women who participated in the study felt that consistent high performance was the most important factor in their advancement within IBM. But the women also made it clear that this was not enough. Women have to be visible and work on projects that matter to the business and its clients. They have to be willing to take on critical, visible roles that stretch them, develop them and provide an opportunity to demonstrate competence and leadership. Women need to seek out strategic positions, not just operational roles. They need to have a chance to step out of their comfort zones, stretch their skills and have an opportunity to be visible. And visibility is key to promotion. Our participants also emphasized the need for women to develop a strong network within the company who knows their abilities and skills and who are willing to make them visible to their peers, decision makers and the leadership team. Women must also know how to promote themselves both internally and externally.
Plan your career. Women need to take control and plan their careers, having proactive career discussions with their managers and actively seeking out the roles they want rather than waiting for the jobs to come to them. But most of all, women need to understand that they need a strong team of supporters that are acquainted with their work and can give them honest feedback on career decisions. Within IBM we refer to this as your “career advisory team,” and it can consist of your former managers, mentors, advocates, coaches or whomever you think will help you be successful in your career. Having a supportive environment for women with advocates and mentors is critical. Everyone should have a mentor, but advocates must be earned. So women must make sure they are looking for opportunities to prove their abilities and skills in a highly-visible manner to senior executives in the company. According to the study, 93% of the executive women said they had an advocate.
Integrate work and life. A large number of executive women in the study stated that difficulty integrating work and personal/family life is a significant obstacle to women’s progress to the executive level. This can be difficult in a global 24×7 environment. But based on the information gathered in the interviews, many of our executive women have learned to manage the obstacles in front of them. Many of the women in their interviews cited the importance of a flexible work environment. As one executive said, “Lots of work can be done outside the 8 to 5 timeframe.” Women need to know what flexibility options are available to them and understand how to balance these options with the needs of the business. They can also learn a great deal from the women that have preceded them. This is why a supportive environment with other women sharing their successes and challenges is so important.
As we strive to bring more women into leadership roles, we cannot afford to neglect the pipeline of women waiting to break into executive roles. How we nurture these women in the early and middle of their careers will determine the strength of our leadership in the future. That is smarter career development.
For more on the IBM Advancing Women Research Study, read the study paper, Your Journey to Executive. The study paper takes a very thorough look at each of these themes and incorporates the ideas expressed in the interviews with the executives. And although the study was focused on women, the insights shared are relevant to men, as well.
Kim Stephens is the communications lead for the Advancing Women at IBM Research Study and is the co-author of the study paper. She works in Program Design and Development, IBM Diversity and Inclusion. In her more than 15 years with IBM, Kim has worked as a developer, accessibility advocate, technical writer, senior editor and senior communications manager.