There are many reasons that women are not as well represented in key corporate leadership positions as men. Inherent bias in the workplace makes it harder for women to get promoted; and women still disproportionately bear family responsibilities which can make them less aggressive about seeking out new assignments.

But one of the top reasons that women do not make it to leadership roles is that they lack access to role models and mentors in leadership positions to help them envision their path up the career ladder. In many organizations, there may be one senior-level woman for every hundred or two hundred junior-level women, which can make it hard for younger women to feel they have access to that woman, or reasonable odds at getting her job.

At the same time, women who do reach the top corporate ranks struggle with how to deliver on their work and family responsibilities and still make time to mentor the many, many women who may need their guidance -- which is a challenge I have personally faced. So I was incredibly impressed when I recently learned about a new initiative underway at GE called "If You Can See It, You Can Be It."

The "If You Can See It, You Can Be It" initiative is a global program at GE designed to enhance the leadership skills of women in commercial (sales, marketing and product management) functions through the science of 'strategic storytelling.' The program was spearheaded by Cate Gutowski, vice president of Commercial Digital Thread. Gutowski has had a twenty-year career in various roles at GE, and has become something of an evangelist of strategic storytelling -- which she defines as "the ability to tell the right story, at the right time, at the right place to motivate others to take action."

In building the "If You Can See It, You Can Be It" program, Gutowski found a way to stretch her reach and sphere of influence beyond just her direct reports, and even beyond women at GE to its customers. Here's why the program is so powerful:

1. Inspiration Begets Inspiration

People who have worked for Gutowski say, "Few people have the opportunity to report to a business leader who is also a coach and mentor...I was in awe of her ability to command a room and get people on board with ideas."

In building their two-day training program, GE has amplified the power of Gutowski's leadership by creating other female leaders who display similar charisma, using stories to influence both internal and external stakeholders. By inspiring other leaders to be inspirational, more women see their path to the top - and get a first-hand example of what a successful female leader looks like.

2. Practice Makes Perfect

After a day of instruction in the training program, the women participants are encouraged to share their personal stories within the group. Sharing is completely voluntary, and the room is considered a "safe space" to practice their newly-learned storytelling skills. Participants learn how to give -- and receive -- feedback, which are critical skills for leaders.

3. Legs Beyond The Training Room

To ensure the program delivers a lasting impact, the GE team built an extensive library of videos with the compelling personal stories of diverse women working for GE and GE's customers that emerge during these workshops.

"The video stories we've captured showcase both our employees and our customers at different stages of leadership, as the intention is for a woman to see or hear one another and think, 'I can do this,'" Gutowski explains.

The skills GE is teaching are timely, particularly as studies increasingly show that skills related to persuasion, collaboration and empathy -- traditionally viewed as female traits -- are increasingly the skills that will bring the greatest success to corporations in the 21st century.

Just as Gutowski has helped project her own message of inspiration beyond just her immediate relationships, I'm hopeful that by sharing the story of how GE's groundbreaking initiative came to touch thousands of women, leaders reading this will consider how to share similar messages of inspiration and motivation through strategic storytelling.

Published on: May 2, 2017