Before beginning my journey at Sounding Board, I spent over 25 years building leadership capabilities in Fortune 500 CEOs and other key executive positions. As a result, I’ve seen first-hand how successful organizations approach leadership development, and I have opinions on what works and what doesn’t. 

When it comes to developing women leaders, I often wonder why companies have specific programs for women, especially ones that only include women. There is a perception that women need something different than men — help with “imposter syndrome,” or how to present powerfully, and that somehow only networking with other women is the winning strategy. Of course, some women might need this, but some men might need this as well. Women do not have an inherent lack of confidence or ability to organize and present ideas. All potential leaders have strengths and areas for development. 

Developing Todays Leaders, Regardless of Gender

Developing leaders with a personalized approach makes sense. Leadership coaching is a fantastic way to do this. But not all women have the same needs, and it’s strange to think they do when we don’t have the same frame of reference for men. Do companies have men-only programs for how to tame aggressiveness or how to collaborate and not compete? Of course not! Because all men don’t have the same developmental needs — neither do women. 

Early in my career, employers kept trying to sign me up for imposter syndrome classes. At that time, these classes were called “assertiveness,” and I never needed or wanted them. I’m not shy and have been told my entire life that I need to employ some restraint and not overshadow others. Me in an assertiveness class? It was a disaster. I ended up leading it, and guess what? There were a number of men in the class too. Yet this was the curriculum for women. 

Creating separate programs for women implies that women are different from men and perpetuates existing biases. The reality is that women should get developed, just like men, from day one with a company. To anyone thinking, “but men and women are different!” Of course, they are, and personalized development through coaching handles this because men are also different from each other, just as women are. From a leadership perspective, the most significant difference between men and women is that women leaders often deal with a majority of men and may need help with that. The reverse is not typically true. 

Analyzing the state of global entrepreneurship, World Bank noted, “The gender gap in entrepreneurship reflects recurring underlying disparities and tends to signal strong inequalities in access to institutions.” You will notice they did not say anything about capabilities and skills. That’s because leaders, regardless of biological sex or gender identity, need the same capabilities and skills.

Build Equality Programs

So, what can we do instead of creating programs isolated to women? For starters, companies should build programs rooted in equality. Coaching is a development accelerator. If the goal is to have a balanced pipeline of leaders, you can’t have 80 percent of men being promoted and think that adding a development program for women will change this ratio. The results will always be unbalanced, and parity will be impossible. If an organization needs to catch up because they don’t have gender balance in the leadership ranks now, this is the opportunity to promote more women; there is no need to create another program to do that. Use what is in place for the male employees. 

With regard to possible pushback, my stance remains that naysayers and skeptics are simply feeding into an existing bias against women. We do not need special development programs. We need the same development and promotional opportunities that men receive, starting at the same point in career trajectory as men, with the same championing and support that men receive. 

Given that women are not compromised when it comes to business, a unified approach to leader development can open up new avenues for employers and enable them to rethink how and when development programs start. Even the perceived challenges, such as imposter syndrome, dismissive attitudes from counterparts, interruptions in meetings, and skepticism of decisions, all go back to coachable capabilities like confidence and presence. I have coached a lot of women and have never once worked on imposter syndrome. But I have worked to develop self-confidence, decision-making confidence, and how to generate confidence in others with each and every coachee and anecdotally, for the first 15 years of my career as an executive coach, I only worked with men. Why? Men were — and still are — the dominant cohort at the senior leadership level in many organizations and industries.

Capabilities for Coaching

Capabilities are at the core of successful leadership coaching. Companies need to focus on fostering those capabilities throughout the employee lifecycle. That means developing leaders earlier to be available when the need arises. To accomplish this, employers need to recognize abilities and potential as part of the talent acquisition process and offer coaching immediately post-hire. That way, everyone is equally prepared. Likewise, by starting earlier, employees also have the ability to build out new networks, and networks have been proven to impact professional advancement. Supporting access for women to professional networks traditionally enjoyed by men can also make a big difference. 

A piece published by Harvard Business Review indicated that high centrality, a key measurement in social network analysis, tends to drive placement more than other factors. The author wrote, “Centrality, in this context, is less a function of how many people you know but who those people are. Identifying and connecting with people who are connected to multiple networks is a key strategy.” By sequestering women into gender-specific programs, companies limit their networks and, ultimately, their career development.

Final Thoughts

From what I’ve seen and what the research indicates, if organizations want to create a balanced pipeline, that starts the moment all employees are hired. That is why I advocate for the term gender neutral. Gender is no longer a factor in the decision of who is promotable. Skills and capabilities are, and leadership coaching is a proven way to develop them. The sooner companies realize the value coaching offers employees from the outset, the less likely women and other underrepresented populations are to fall behind.

Lori Mazan

Lori Mazan is the Co-Founder and Chief Coaching Officer for Sounding Board , the first unified Leader Development Platform designed to bridge the leadership gap. Lori is a seasoned executive coach who spent more than 25 years coaching C-Suite executives to leadership excellence. Many of those public and private company CEOs expressed that they would have liked this caliber of coaching earlier in their careers. Inspired by these experiences, Lori joined Christine Tao to launch Sounding Board as a feedback-driven, cloud-based leadership coaching platform that could maintain best-in-class leadership coaching while lowering costs to make it affordable and scalable for leaders at every level of their careers. Lori will publish her first book, "Leadership Revolution: The Future of Developing Dynamic Leaders,” in late 2023.