Women Finance Leaders Possess Competencies that Organizations Need the Most as We Emerge from the Pandemic: Here’s How You Equip Them for Success.

by Jennifer McCollum

7 hurdles facing women finance leaders amid the pandemic—and how you can counter each and equip women for success.

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Women are more likely to have leadership competencies such as empathy, compassion, and collaboration—skills that are known to support the rapid pivoting, reinvention, and innovation required to survive through uncertainty, and to emerge stronger.   
However, women face unique leadership hurdles that can be exacerbated during times of crisis, making it a challenge for them to contribute fully. Moreover, efforts to support women finance leaders are often perceived as "nice to haves" that are jettisoned when the going gets tough, to both individual and company detriment. This is not an unavoidable consequence as we soldier on in the pandemic. You can help your women leaders.

Read on for seven specific hurdles facing women finance leaders amid the pandemic—and how you can counter each and equip women for success. These hurdles have been identified and informed by Linkage’s research, which we have gathered over the 20+ years that we’ve worked in the advancing women leader’s space.

Hurdle #1: Women Face a Higher Bar to Prove Their Value

Women often take on more than they can manage in an attempt to prove their worth. This is especially true now. Women are left holding more responsibility, but not more opportunity. This is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to shoulder the bulk of domestic labor in their households—meaning that your women leaders are likely stretched to the limit both at work and at home.

How Finance Leadership Can Help: Be sure you are fully leveraging your women leader’s talents and unique points of view. Make a point to provide them opportunities to be at the decision-making table and help them shift work to others by making it safe and expected that they do so.

Hurdle #2: Lack of Recognized Confidence Is Holding Women Leaders Back

Creating space to focus on their own strength, wisdom, and power is prohibitive in a world where women balance the day-to-day shifts required to effectively manage their health, their family, and their career. It is well documented that women generally are less confident than men, even when they are more competent. Combine this with the desire for perfectionism, and recognized confidence becomes a big hurdle for women.

How Finance Leadership Can Help: Make an effort to know the unique value and contribution of the women on your team. Shine a spotlight on those contributions publicly in ways that will help them receive recognition from across the organization.

Hurdle #3: Survival Mode Makes Clarity Challenging

When you are in survival mode, it’s hard to envision your path forward -- next month or next year -- and to be intentional about your professional advancement. But clarity is the gateway to overcoming the rest of the hurdles.

How Financial Leadership Can Help: Even in times of uncertainty and loss, it is up to you to speak to an inspiring new future. At best, you can articulate where you are striving to be one year from now. It will allow others the ability to do the same.

Hurdle #4: Internal Bias Worsens Under Pressure

Internal biases (self-limiting beliefs) can grow stronger in stressful environments. This makes confidence and clarity even more difficult if women are creating false narratives about they are or who they can be. For instance, a woman leader might tell herself that she isn’t competent enough to take on a new project—even if her work history demonstrates that she is.

How Finance Leaders Can Help: Pay careful attention to what you say and how you say it, and always consider the impact you have with your words. In an effort to move quickly and decisively, we as leaders sometimes unintentionally diminish or invalidate others without even knowing it. Reflect on this throughout the day and apologize for missteps (as we will all make them).

Hurdle #5: Branding and Presence Interrupted

In a world where our workforce and teams are changing, and everyone is being asked to do more with fewer resources, showing up in a way that instills confidence in the areas women leaders want to be known for requires constant introspection and precious time that they don’t have. Remote work can make this even harder.

How Finance Leaders Can Help: Spotlighting and leveraging unique talent in others not only helps with the hurdle of recognized confidence, it helps others know their brand. Women tend to be given less credit for their successes and blamed more for failures than men. Your job is to make sure this is not happening but instead that you are calling out the unique power in meetings to promote their brand.  

Hurdle #6: Asking for Help is Hard; Asking for Help in an Uncertain World is Even Harder

Women are incredibly effective at negotiating on behalf of others, but often don’t use that skill to negotiate for themselves. In the current environment, many women may feel selfish to ask for what they need—which could lead them to not making essential asks at all.

How Finance Leaders Can Help: Create a culture of safety for all of your employees to ask for what they need. That doesn’t mean that you must always answer “yes” to asks; it just means that your team knows it’s okay to initiate a dialogue so that a solution can be found together. For example: You might remind your team members periodically that you want them to succeed and want to help them any way you can. And when someone does ask for help, do your best to find a solution. People notice when you deliver on what you say.

Hurdle #7: Networking: Women often focus on working hard and see networking as a nice to do rather than a need to do. But effective leaders get work done through others and with others. Relationships are key. Moreover, the reinvention of our businesses will hinge on collaborating with others. Networking to build connections allows others to spot great talent and sponsor those individuals into that next role. 

How Finance Leaders Can Help: Connect women to people inside your network. Make introductions, role model networking and share outcomes of success in your connections.

What This Looks Like in Action: How One Leader Conquered the 7 Hurdles To Advancement At Synchrony

Synchrony Financial is a premier consumer financial services company that delivers customized financing programs across several industries including retail, health, auto, travel and home, along with award-winning consumer banking products. They have long recognized the importance of diversity and inclusion in driving success. With their continued focus on providing differentiated development for their under-represented populations, along with development for leaders in positions to drive systemic change, they continue to lead the financial services industry in attracting, engaging and retaining exceptional, diverse talent.

One leader who has benefited from targeted leadership development programming at Synchrony is Monica Evans, who is now a General Manager. Monica has successfully navigated her way through several of these hurdles over the past year. Initially, she was so focused on continuing to exceed expectations in her current role that she hadn’t paused to focus on what she might want next in her career. In other words, she had not spent time addressing the hurdle of Clarity and really thinking about what she wanted for herself. After attending Linkage’s Women in Leadership Institute™, an immersive leadership development experience designed for women leaders, she had an epiphany. She realized that she had a lot more of her talent to contribute at Synchrony and an innate desire to navigate what this might look like.

Although Monica had an incredibly successful 25+ year career in the financial industry, the next hurdle to overcome was Recognized Confidence.  Like so many other women -- and particularly women of color -- the road to advancement in an uneven playing field feels like more work and suffering that it is worth, which unfortunately leaves a lot of amazing talent on the sidelines. Women of color are the most marginalized of all in our organizations, which eventually can impact self-confidence even further.

With the space and time to reflect on her unique strengths, Monica recognized that one of her gifts was the ability to step back and look at the big picture from a place of what’s possible, and to be proactive rather than reactive.

This turned out to be a critical skill that Monica was able to leverage even more fully during the Covid-19 crisis. She had to lead a team to make swift decisions and take new actions, including how to respond to clients’ changing needs, while also ensuring the success of Synchrony. The other strength that showed up over and over was her deep desire and ability to mentor others and positively influence from a place of genuine authenticity. She is a very inclusive leader who quickly sees the value that others bring and has a deep desire to help high potentials excel. While she inherently knew this, she hadn’t thought about how she truly could apply this at Synchrony until she addressed the hurdles of Clarity and Brand.

Networking and Making the Ask were other hurdles Monica considered, acknowledging she had not spent time there. Women focus on working hard and supporting others, thinking they will be rewarded for that alone. They don’t often take the time or see the value in networking. And when they do, they are hesitant to share their strengths or talk about how their unique talents can be leveraged to support the growth and success of the organization.

Next, Monica made a conscious effort to set a series of steps in motion with the intent of both helping the organization and exploring who might help her play a bigger role.  She let the right people know her desire to contribute more and her need to grow her network. By making the ask, she quickly gained support to attend meetings that helped her make key connections. Once she had those opportunities to build connections and showcase her talents, it wasn’t long before she was presented with an opportunity to apply for a new role, which she ultimately accepted. This is often the outcome for those who build the connections and share their goals and talents. Unfortunately, women do not do this as intentionally or as organically in our organizations as men do.

Monica, like so many other women that we need in leadership right now, has the critical skill set: the ability to influence and inspire through compassion and collaboration, which drives better and more innovative outcomes. This also leads to higher engagement and commitment, resulting in informed, inclusive and decisive action.  Through her own self-discovery and work along with the support of leaders in her organization, Monica broke down some of the barriers that exist for women and particularly women of color.

“Now more than ever, it is critical for us to create an inclusive culture where all populations, including women leaders, are engaged from across the entire organization,” said DJ Castro, Chief Human Resources Officer at Synchrony. “We recognize that talent is our most important asset--critical to helping us innovate as an organization--and conquer the unique challenges facing our industry today.”

Jennifer McCollum is the CEO of Linkage.