Changing Corporate Culture To Enable Women’s Success

Woman Competing

If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve been hearing the recent debate about barriers to women’s career success.

Debating Two Paths

This debate is personified by Anne-Marie Slaughter in one corner, arguing that organizations force women to choose between life balance and career success, and Sheryl Sandberg in the other corner, countering that women bear a share of the responsibility for this problem.

In Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, she says women need to assume they can have it all, and then get out there (or rather, lean in there) and press for what they need.

If you are a leader who wants to foster the career advancement of women, you must realize this is more than a women’s issue or a work-life balance issue.

Underlying the pressure towards work-life imbalance is a world view shaping common assumptions about what it means to be successful at work.

I call this world view the “mastery orientation.”

Taking Sides

This type of outlook privileges male leaders and leaders who embrace work-personal life imbalance. Also, it has unrecognized costs not just for life balance of the people working there, but also for organizational performance.

Only when you recognize how this world view hinders performance can you summon up the political will needed to change it.

The Mastery Orientation

Below are some of the mastery orientation’s assumptions. See if you recognize them. Perhaps they are so obvious that they’re invisible, like the “water the fish swim in.”

Work success is more valuable than personal life success.

In my research several years ago, many male leaders who  reached high position, when asked why they spend so much time and energy at work, acknowledged that they enjoyed it. They focused on it, even to the detriment of their marriage, children, or health – because work success offers rewards, such as admiration and deference, which make personal life appear mundane by comparison.

Those who work long hours are “rock stars.”

Organizations reinforce the focus on work as productive and virtuous, rewarding those who work excessive hours and defining them as the most committed and capable.

“Winning, “being “right”, “smart”, “logical,” and “in control” leads to success.

The valuing of these traditionally male qualities disadvantages women (though many senior women leaders demonstrate them).  And, this style receives negative results at home.

A “strong” image is leaderly.

Competitive approaches to conflict, power-over approaches to influence, and “thinking alone” instead of “thinking together” are consistent with the image that many leaders feel they have to live up to. They believe that to ask for help, or to say “I don’t know,” is a sign of weakness.

Moving up through the hierarchy is a measure of one’s value.

Managers seek validation by working long hours and seeking higher position – regardless of whether this higher position fits with their talents or interests. Organizations reinforce this idealization of moving “up” by focusing career development on hierarchical progression.

The Alternative Path

Different ways of working are possible – ways which are more consistent with women’s leadership and work-personal life balance, and which also support broader commitment, empowerment, and performance for everyone.

What concrete interventions might you pursue in your organizations, to realize this possibility?

Teach managers collaborative skills.

If managers develop a collaborative mindset in areas such as performance management, decision-making, and influence, this perspective will bleed into their approach to control and delegation, their relative valuing of work vs. personal life rewards, and the macho culture of overwork.

Create structured opportunities for dialogues about role expectations.

People and their managers can use the collaborative skills in these dialogues, to negotiate for balanced commitments and clarify role expectations.

Re-frame career planning, and enable individuals to define their own paths to success.

This approach focuses on individuals’ talents, purpose, strengths and limits, and then defines roles that link individual purpose explicitly to organization goals. Growth is defined in terms of increase in capability, not movement on the “ladder.” This also enables individual ebbs and flows in work focus related to family and care-giving responsibilities.

Assign high potential women to visible work on initiatives of strategic importance.

In contrast to traditional mentoring approaches, strategic initiatives support women’s visibility in a way that’s tied to important outcomes – not to face time or the old boys’ network.

Bring employees together to identify opportunities to streamline work processes.

Collaborative re-design initiatives serve multiple purposes, giving employees a taste of empowerment and a broader context about organizational direction, eliminating unnecessary work, and reducing the stress of conflicting priorities. Women at middle and junior organizational levels, where they’re more equally represented, also gain visibility by actively participating in these processes.

Include emotional intelligence in leadership competency models.

Research supports the idea that dimensions of emotional intelligence such as self-awareness, ability to understand own and others’ emotions, ability to value others’ perspectives and build consensus contribute to leaders’ effectiveness. Also, active involvement in parenting, personal relationships, and participation in the community can promote the development of these capabilities.

Challenge behavioral norms and values consistent with mastery.

When you hear a colleague praising a “rock star” for pulling an all-nighter – stop him and ask him what message he thinks he is sending, and who that message excludes.

Reflect on your own role in supporting the current (or desired) culture.

What is the impact of your actions?  What behaviors are you rewarding, intentionally or not”?

The potential impact for an organization that chooses the alternative path is game-changing – getting the most out of all your female (and male) talent, becoming a magnet for new talent that won’t settle for less than having it all, creating the space for less-stressed employees to work more creatively and innovatively.

You, as a leader, are in a position to make it happen. Why not try?

So what can you do to take a close look at your leadership tendencies and really reflect on what you have been doing? How can you objectively evaluate if you are on the right path or not? Have you been toeing the old-school line? If so, would getting to a more collaborative path help your team? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Joan Kofodimos
Joan Kofodimos is a partner in Teleos Consulting
She Coaches Leaders to Develop their Strategic Perspective
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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Katy Kelly on March 14, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Katy Kelly.

    • Joan Kofodimos on March 14, 2013 at 5:23 pm

      Hi Katy,
      Thanks so much – I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Vanguard Organizational Leadership on March 15, 2013 at 8:39 am

    Following the Alternative Approach, which is about serving the needs and growth of employees in the organization, will eventually lead one to the notarity of the Mastery Orientation. The Alternative Approach makes for a more level playing field to the benefit of everyone’s Managerial, Leadership and personal growth in the organization. That will only happen if men and women realize that personal achievement — manager and leader — is not about the individual, it is about others and what is best for the organization.

    Great article Joan. Thank you.

    • Joan Kofodimos on March 15, 2013 at 10:18 am

      Hi David,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree! The challenge for all of us who believe in the alternative approach is to help other leaders see how this approach can actually benefit the organizational outcomes they care about.

  3. Beth Terrence on March 21, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Great post! Shifting into a new paradigm of leadership is so important. As you shared, recognized the old patterns and being outmoded and beginning to step into and create new ones is the key to transformation. I love your Alternative Approach and focus on collaboration. Thanks for the inspiration.