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How female leaders could rise to the C-suite

20 December, 2019

Nisha Sheth
PwC Deals Principal, PwC United Kingdom

We’ve all heard of the “glass ceiling” – the invisible barrier that keeps many women from reaching the highest ranks of corporate America. Research suggests women in business are at a disadvantage from the beginning of their careers, but there are particular barriers that keep many from succeeding as senior leaders.

I recently sat down with author and career coach Wanda Wallace, as part of PwC’s Women in Deals series. Speaking to a group of female business leaders, Wanda highlighted the toughest parts about moving from a middle manager to a senior leader. Being promoted is an exciting time, but it can also be stressful for many entering uncharted territory. According to one study that surveyed 2,300 organizations globally, women held only 18% of senior leadership positions.

Wanda outlined how aspiring executives could succeed as they move up the corporate ladder:

As a middle manager, you’re essentially an “expert leader,” Wanda said. This is where you’ve developed an expertise in a specific area of your organization. Your reports value the knowledge you share with them and your boss relies on your ability to deliver and keep a specific part of the business running smoothly.

As it turns out, being an expert leader is a role in which many women feel most comfortable: “It’s a comfort zone because they can get away with ignoring the politics, the networking, the profile raising. They can largely let their work speak for itself,” said Wanda, author of You Can’t Know it All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise. Wanda added that as an expert leader, your confidence often stems from knowing that you know your area of expertise as well as anyone. Plus, your value and influence in an organization is often derived from your knowledge of a specific part of the business — all of which tends to feel more comfortable for women and anyone who feels they are part of an underrepresented demographic.

If you succeed as an expert leader, you may rise to a leadership role with greater scope and impact. As a “spanning leader,” you will then oversee a broader range of the business where your team members collectively know more than you do. Wanda said the transition is tough for everyone, but especially for women as the role centers less on expertise and more on the ability to navigate through unfamiliar areas of your organization.

“I personally believe that’s the glass ceiling,” Wanda said. She pointed to a statistic from the book, The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self Doubt, which showed that at one company women didn’t apply for a job unless they met 100% of the qualifications whereas men applied if they met only 60%.

As a spanning leader, according to Wanda, you’re asked to lead a group of people who spent years developing their own expertise and, as a team, know more than you ever would. Wanda said it’s tempting to dig in and catch up, but that’s nearly impossible to do. More than that, the expectations of a spanning leader differ widely from an expert leader when it comes to the ways you interact with others.

It comes down to adopting a different attitude, Wanda explained. No longer are you delivering facts, details and resolving conflicts. You’re overseeing various domains in which you’re depending on others’ expertise to get the job done. Wanda said your expertise will always matter, but colleagues will rely more on your ability to identify priorities, develop strategies and inspire them to do more than they could imagine.

As result, here are three core questions you’ll need to address if you want to stay an effective senior leader, according to Wanda:

  • How will I add value to my team, since I’m no longer the one directly doing the work?
  • How will I know that the right work is getting done? What is the work I am doing myself?
  • How do I interact with people – that is, how do I inspire, motivate and influence them?

Indeed, these are tough questions, Wanda noted. As a senior leader, much of your success will lie in your ability to create leverage – that is, develop and nurture relationships with a broad network of leaders at your company. They will often have expertise you lack, and that’s expected. Wanda said the secret is to leverage your network of experts, to identify the priorities and strategies and to enable your team to execute.