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A Letter to Our Daughters About Their Future Careers

03/06/2015 06:29 EST | Updated 05/06/2015 05:59 EDT
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Businesswomen cheering in office

As I sit and write this letter to our daughters -- our future leaders -- I recognize that women are increasingly visible in leadership roles. However we have a long way to go to achieve equality, particularly at the most senior levels of leadership.

I've been fortunate enough to work in three of the strongest and most modern economic systems in the world (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) at the senior executive and Chief Executive Officer level.

And yet, senior levels of management look pretty much as they did in the 1980s -- the higher up the organizational pyramid you go, the rarer women become. When you look at the most senior executives -- or the 'C suite' -- women represent less than one in 10 of the roles.

For example, in Canada, women comprise nearly 51 per cent of the total labour force. As we move up the ranks, women hold around 37 per cent of senior management positions. By the time we get to the most senior executive roles, only 6 per cent are held by women.

It's not about lack of ambition. So, my note to our daughters outlines my hopes for the career opportunities you will have.

Valuing different leadership styles. To make effective decisions, organizations need leadership diversification. They need to avoid what I call "style stereotyping" -- narrowly defining what it means to be a successful leader, then hiring and promoting people who fit that stereotype.

Historically, CEOS have been men, who will have a used a proven leadership formula to get to the positions they are in. It's natural to want to recruit a like-minded team.

Research from Australia found that 80 per cent of women felt style was the main barrier to career progression.

In the face of numbers like those, it may seem like working to fit in and adapt your style to the dominant model is the best path forward.

It's not.

As your career unfolds, you'll develop your own genuine leadership style based on who you are and your experiences, not who someone else thinks you should be.

Hearing different ideas. By challenging each other to think more broadly or look at a problem differently, we nearly always develop a better solution. Part of this is having a diverse team, who can draw on their different experiences and viewpoints to identify the portfolio of options which are available to choose from. Decision makers in senior roles should be able to relate to the clients who buy their firm's products and services. Can you imagine doing a school project to develop a new hockey stick, if nobody on the project team has ever played hockey?

The other part is about speaking up. Unfortunately, it's too easy to go along with the prevailing view ( 'group think').

Think of a situation where you have a group of teenagers egging each other on to do something which is overly risky or not fully thought through, but which -- if they achieve it -- will make them a hero. It can take someone with a different mindset to break the cycle.

Strong leadership will see the value in differing points of view -- but only if you are willing to offer yours.

Encouraging difference of thought

The best leaders recognize the value of diversified leadership -- that is, valuing different ways of approaching business. This strengthens the team, and reduces internal competition. Imagine if your school only valued math scores and nothing else. Every student would be competing against each other for excellence in math -- whether or not that made the school any stronger as a whole.

With leadership diversification, you can have a win-win situation. Someone else doesn't have to lose for you to be recognized for your contribution, because you each bring different skills to the table.

Imagine having to start your own company such as an online music store the day you finish school, where you could hire only three of your fellow graduates. Who would you pick? You would be unlikely to succeed by hiring only the three best computer science students; or the three best music students; or the three best business students. You wouldn't want to be limited to only hiring the male or the female students. You'd want the strongest team with the best students from each of a diversified set of skills.

So, be proud of what makes you different. Help others to be proud of what makes them different.

Be smart about where you invest your time

As leaders of tomorrow I also want you to evaluate where to invest your talents. Look to align yourself with organizations who demonstrate that they value these two things:

Flexible work practices: Increasingly work is anytime/anywhere, with 24/7 availability. So is family. Invest your talents somewhere that provides the flexibility to manage both work and home.

Meritocracy: Advancement in the organization needs to be based on performance delivery, whatever the leadership experience and style. For a good indication of this, look at the Board and the senior executive teams, to see if the team members have a mix of technical expertise, gender, visible minorities, and so on.

Finally, I leave you with my hopes for our daughters in the workplace of the future

• I hope that through leadership diversification, corporations truly value and use the richness that difference can bring, to help teams make consistently excellent choices.

• I hope that the risk of leadership concentration has been recognized, style stereotyping has been driven out and that flexible work practices and meritocracy are the norm.

• I hope that you will be able to say "in the old days, when women were thought of as a minority in senior leadership..."

But most of all, I hope that you have a joyous life in which you can make your own choices, embrace your own distinctive style, and fulfill your own hopes and dreams about family and career.

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