How female HR leaders can get ahead

Female HR professionals looking to get ahead and move up in their organisation need to invest in finding the right mentors and sponsors as early as possible in their careers, according to a global search and consulting firm.

“Only with the right support and network do we see the most successful transitions,” said Alicia Yi, MD and co-leader Asia Pacific for Korn Ferry.

Women who want to advance to higher organisational levels need to understand which experiences will help them do so, she said.

“They need to actively manage their careers – discern their career goals, determine skills and experience requirements, seek (and accept) challenging assignments, and foster key relationships, which eventually will make them more confident,” said Yi.

“Overcoming tough experiences and making difficult decisions will help you gain your confidence. So take on challenging assignments that will stretch you. There is just no substitute for that.”

Leading a team of men
For female HR professionals leading a team of men, the first piece of advice Yi offered was to “be authentic, be yourself”.

Good business leaders need to be authentic and not compromise on their own values and beliefs, in order to please different people, she explained.

Behavioural research also shows that women look at issues differently and are more likely to consider decision from a different perspective.

“For example, women tend to look at issues from multiple stakeholders’ perspective – not only just shareholders but also employees and the impact on society at large. See your difference as a strength and use it to your advantage,” said Yi.

Second, she recommended finding “your own voice”. “Sometimes, as women move up in an organisation, their role models are often men as most senior level positions are held by men,” she said.

“Lacking role models that look and feel like you can be intimidating and can result in self-doubt. But here is the thing: the power of diversity comes from having multiple points of view and debate.

“So as a leader, it will be important for you to find your voice to create a vision and strategy. Focus on bringing out the best from your team and setting the tone. People want to be led by confident leaders.”

The final piece of advice she offered was to “get comfortable owning your power”.

“If the word power is a distressing one, see whether you can reframe it as influence,” she said.

“Women need to think in terms of how they can use influence to drive change and motivate teams. They need to speak up for themselves and be ready to delegate tasks and assignments.

“They shouldn’t underestimate their own contribution and feel the need to be extreme. Know that you are good enough so focus on the job to be done.”

The business case for women
Women represent $12 trillion out of $18 trillion global consumer spending, according to Yi, who said women are a strategically important customer base for many businesses.

Women also make up more than 50 per cent of university graduates in most countries across Asia Pacific, making up a vital part of the talent pool at a time where good talent is in short supply, she said.

There are also many studies now that show that companies with more women at senior levels perform far better financially than companies led only by men. “Organisations that fail to bring women on board risk being left behind,” she said.

In a research piece published by Korn Ferry last year, Career Playbook for Women in Leadership, men and women came out the same on nearly 70 per cent of leadership competencies assessed.

Furthermore, Yi said the skills of women were observed to be stronger in seventeen leadership competencies while men came out stronger in four.

“So women are definitely as capable as men, and on some facets such as organisational and interpersonal skills – which are key to connecting with customers, engaging employees and building talent – they outshine their male colleagues,” she said.

“Yet women continue to be underrepresented on boards and executive teams. As we have well educated women entering the workforce at the same rate as men, but somehow women represent less than 10 per cent at C-suite and even less in the boardroom, we clearly have a pipeline issue.

“The compelling question now becomes – what happens between middle management to senior leadership?”

The systems and dynamics that result in fewer women being offered top positions is what makes up the proverbial glass ceiling, according to Yi, who said this is why it is imperative for organisations to invest early on in the careers of their female employees to identify the issues and find ways to help create the pipeline of women for the C-suite positions.

Advancing the cause
Women are undeniably playing a greater and more significant role in driving business and economic growth, according to Yi, who said organisations have to ensure that their leadership portrait has not lagged behind today’s changing economic landscape.

“HR is one of a few functions that do have significant women representation,” she said. “HR leaders also can play a pivotal role in shaping the culture and talent management practices of an organisation which will impact the future.”

Regarding the lower representation of women in areas of business, she said this problem clearly requires everyone’s commitment and everyone’s best ideas.

“It is not a simple situation we find ourselves in today, and there is no single reason that explains its existence. Instead, it is important for everyone to get involved and take responsibility,” said Yi.

“Governments need to continue to enforce equal employment laws; women need to take risks and step up for skill-expanding challenges; companies need to review and establish gender-balance-friendly policies and practices; and executive teams and boards need to hold themselves and their organisations accountable for achieving what’s possible – drawing on 100 percent of available talent.”