Monday, 20 October 2014

Desperate Housewife? Why doing office housework could be keeping you out of the Boardroom

Control your inner Bree if you want to get the top job: copyright ABC
Recent data released by Google provides surprising insight into leading successful teams.  And it turns out the key is not traditionally respected skills such as giving stirring speeches or clinching million dollar deals.  The company reviews each of their 50,000 staff a couple of times a year which produces vast amounts of performance data.  And the answer is....being predictable.  That's it.  Boring is good.  It's because predictability means your staff know they have autonomy within certain guidelines and this is the secret to job satisfaction.

I read this with delight.  I have always championed predictability at work - but then I am someone whose idea of a nightmare is a surprise party. But even more laid back female colleagues like things at work to be organised and structured.

"I love it when a plan comes together" (
We may 'love it when a plan comes together', but many of our more traditional ideas of successful leadership have more in common with the creator of the catchphrase - Colonel 'Hannibal' Smith who led the A-team vigilantes to triumph every episode. No one ever accused him of being boring.

So if women are in their comfort zone with predictable leadership, why aren't more of us running organisations?

Speaking from my own experience, I suspect we confuse clear predictable leadership with 'office housework'.   Joan Williams who writes extensively on women's career issues explores this idea in her most recent book written with her daughter Rachael Dempsey: "What works for Women at Work".  She says women are often offered 'office housework' which varies from industry to industry.  Employers say this is valued but evidence shows it is not.

 In this months' HBR there is an interesting article looking at this trend in the technology industry.
"Office Work vs Glamour Work" copyright HBR

The article shares evidence that similarly qualified men and women will be offered roles that bias towards gender expectations – and that they will seek and accept these roles unconsciously.  In high tech companies more men by far are coders – the geeks who build the software and app that create millions of dollars of value.  Similarly qualified women tend to become project managers.   Seen as careful, organized and reliable, they will get things done while mentoring the team along the way.  In principle there’s nothing wrong with this – providing these roles provide equal access to the top jobs and are viewed equally in the power and reward hierarchy.  But that’s rarely the case.  These roles often have a ceiling built in.  In fact you easily lock yourself out – the better you are at delivering on time with everyone you started with working in careful harmony – the less incentive there is for your employer to let you stop doing such a great job that is so useful for everyone else and let you loose on the high risk stuff.

"When a man gives his opinion he's a man.  
When a woman gives her opinion she's a bitch" - Bette Davis
But if you say no all the time, evidence suggests that you will risk being seen as inflexible and a poor team player.  So you need to develop some ways of ensuring that you can have it both ways - a civilised, organised working environment without sacrificing your career progression.

Just as I had to accept that if my husband did housework at home he would do things differently to me with different priorities (not easy) and that some things just wouldn't get done, so it should be in the office.  Agree basic minimums for a structured workplace that values people.  Women care about this and get frustrated and even unhappy if they work in places where this is done badly.  But not everything is equally important.  Think about things you'll trade on.

I decided not to argue about the way the dishwasher was stacked or what the children had in their packed lunches.  At work, it helps to handle things using a project management approach with clear deliverables, a budget and an end date as well as a succession plan so that you don't end up chairing the diversity committee for ever.

Use a dashboard or fact based format to report progress.  This allows you to promote your success without bragging which most women hate. I became a devotee of this approach after working with a particularly tough Mckinsey consultant who was a special forces officer  in his spare time.  'Structure sets you free' he said.  Facts win over emotion in the battle for boardroom power. Facts presented by someone with great communication skills who can explain why the project they're delivering is critical to moving the organisation towards its most important goals is what you're aiming for.