New research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) suggests the biggest roadblock may be the perception that the burdens of leadership far outweigh the benefits--a perception shared by 60 percent of U.S. women and 65 percent of U.K. women between the ages of 35 and 50. Although societal norms have shifted as more women assume positions of power, few stories extol their sense of fulfillment, intellectual excitement and sheer joy inherent in having the top job. Instead, the prevalent narrative is still one of sacrifice: the toll career ambitions take on one's personal life.

The result: Too many women step off the fast track because they see an executive role delivering a hefty salary but little else that they value.

The fact is, CTI's study shows that rather than a limitation, power is actually a plus for women. It can enhance both their professional and personal lives. A closer look at what mid-career women (ages 35 to 50) want from their careers exposes their misunderstanding of power and illuminates the benefits it can bring. They want the following:

Women want to flourish. However,the majority of women without power--82 percent of women in the U.S. and 78 percent in the U.K.--believe that an executive position would not allow them to flourish. This assumption is incorrect as 58 percent of women with power in the U.S. and 36 percent in the U.K. report having the ability to flourish.

Women want to reach for meaning and purpose. Yet the majority of women without power--74 percent in the U.S. and 72 percent in the U.K.--expect that an executive position would not allow them to have a lasting impact in their profession, advance causes important to them, and be a role model for their family and community. The research finds, however, that 63 percent of women with power in the U.S. and 40 percent in the U.K. say their careers offer them that opportunity to reach for meaning and purpose.

Women want to excel. They want intellectual challenge to enhance their knowledge and become a recognized expert in their field. Thirty percent of women without power in the U.S. and 37 percent of those in the U.K. don't expect that possibility from an executive position but 87 percent of women with power in the U.S. and 63 percent in the U.K. report being able to excel.

Women want to empower others and be empowered. The majority of women without power--86 percent in the U.S. and the U.K.--believe that an executive position would not afford them the ability to empower others and be empowered: that is, have sponsors--senior colleagues willing to take a bet on them and advocate for their next big opportunity--and build a network of protégés who expand their capabilities, extend their reach and burnish their brand. In fact, 61 percent of women with power in the U.S. and 35 percent in the U.K. enjoy the ability to empower others and be empowered.

Women want to earn well. Women say it's important to them to attain financial security and financial independence, as well as to sustain a comfortable lifestyle for themselves, their children and their parents. Some 71 percent of women without power in the U.S. and 55 percent in the U.K. expect an executive position would allow them to earn well. The interesting fact here is that only 37 percent of women with power in the U.S. and 24 percent in the U.K. report earning well.

The report finds that women who perceive that an executive role will fulfill their value proposition are more likely to strive for top leadership roles--34 percent vs. 12 percent in the U.S. and 43 percent vs. 10 percent in the U.K. This fact should give impetus to organizations to change women's perception of the rewards of a top job, if they are to maximize their investment in their high-potential women and enable them to realize their full leadership potential. They must provide role models who give voice to the substantial joys and rewards of leadership, thus inspiring more qualified women to stay connected through the difficult mid-career years. They must sustain women's ambition, both by meeting their needs as they progress toward leadership and by ensuring that leadership actually delivers on women's value proposition.

Formal initiatives can play a transformative role:

  • Executive leadership programs change women's perceptions of leadership by exposing them to leadership in action. Bank of America's Global Women's Conference brought together more than 300 senior female leaders to promote a continuing agenda of initiatives related to women's empowerment and advancement of goals. "Women want to know how other women have handled trying to balance a new baby with a demanding job or how to network effectively across the company," explains Cynthia Bowman, senior vice president of leadership development and diversity and inclusion at Bank of America. "The informal mentoring that goes on in these circles by women who've powered through is incredibly impactful."
  • Programs that seed and cultivate sponsor-protégé relationships keep women on track for top jobs by providing support, opportunities for stretch assignments, protection, and advocates. Sponsors can also speak to protégés about the benefits that come with a decision-making role. AT&T's Executive Women's Leadership Experience and Champions programs, targeting respectively outstanding women at the general manager and vice president levels, ensures these high-potentials have access to the right sponsorship and advocacy at the C-suite level. These programs have led to higher promotion rates for women and people of color, and better grooming of top talent at an earlier stage in their careers.

In short, when women can expect an executive role to fulfill their value proposition, they both reclaim and sustain their ambition, and enjoy the perquisites of success. And their employers benefit, too.

As CTI's 2013 innovation research shows, companies whose leadership remains homogenous lose a critical competitive edge: They're less likely to elicit market-worthy ideas, less likely to green-light them, and less likely to increase market share or grow their global footprint. Conversely, companies that seed diversity in their workforce and leadership ranks are measurably more innovative, are more likely to expand their market share and capture new markets. Studies consistently show that companies with more women in senior management reap greater financial rewards.

Not everyone is cut out for leadership. But for companies that want to reap their investment in top talent, it pays to encourage talented women to re-imagine power.

Published on: Jan 5, 2015