This New York Times article, Overcoming the Confidence Gap for Women, was fascinating. A recent KPMG study found "nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 professional and college-age women… expressed a desire to someday become senior leaders. Only 40% were consistently able to envision themselves as leaders. While men often overvalue their strengths, women too frequently undervalue theirs. Call it a continuing confidence gap."
The study also shared that 86% of the women surveyed were taught be "nice to others" growing up and to do well in school, but less than 50% were taught leadership lessons.
As a mom of two girls, this terrifies me. I'm constantly thinking about how to reinforce to my girls examples of great leadership and how they can model it at school. "Yes, mom. We get it - girl power!" they like to respond, often with an eye roll. But how can we make sure we’re getting through?
Two surprising lessons emerge from the article: the value of mentorship and praise. “Receiving praise from mentors and leaders,” the article notes, “was the single biggest factor influencing women’s perceptions of themselves in the study, more even than receiving raises and promotions.” Think about that: praise from mentors spurs change for female leaders even more than money does.
Mentorship networks don’t spring up of their own accord; they take concerted effort at an organizational level. This research strongly suggests that effort is worth it – in fact, critical to the company’s long-term success. After all, companies with more women in top management experienced better, more consistent financial performance than companies run by the “old-boy” method. Leadership development should include a mentorship component.
The second lesson is so simple, you can start immediately: praise your employees! It’s free and remarkably effective, in ways people are slow to recognize. Here are just a few:
- Praise tells employees what behaviors you want to see more of. Praise for a specific project makes your company’s values and priorities tangible. Plus, publicly praising an exemplary employee helps everyone on their team better understand what success looks like.
- Praise helps employees see themselves as leaders – and aspire to greater heights. This vision of oneself as a leader might come as a surprise. All employees – but particularly females – benefit from seeing themselves as leaders in action already, with a mandate to continue growing.
- Praise changes culture. As a leader yourself, giving praise and sharing credit signals the culture you want to foster: performance-driven, yet team-based. Remember: up to 90% of employee behaviors stem from the coaching actions of leaders.
- Praise is an extraordinary catalyst. I call it “leadership rocket fuel”. By engaging the emotions, praise empowers people to do and be more. After all, leadership isn’t easy. It demands discipline, struggle, courage, and much harder work than coasting by. Rewards for change leadership usually aren’t immediate, either. Praise gives employees that necessary shot-in-the-arm to keep stretching themselves, while encouraging others to do the same. Isn’t this leadership by definition?
You can go overboard on praise, of course – but few companies acknowledge their team’s successes too much. While employee recognition programs and “official” forms of praise are important, ad-hoc praise between individuals matters a lot, too. Praise real successes today, and more real successes will follow.
I hope the day arrives soon where great leadership will just be seen as great leadership - no matter what the gender. In the meantime, this article inspires me as both a parent and a mentor to young women and men. I vow to praise great work wherever I see it, support more mentorship programs both formal and informal, and help young women see themselves clearly as the leaders we want them to become.