Share your aspirations to smash that glass ceiling

In working with a number of groups of executives and managers, I have been struck by different attitudes to diversity in careers. Some embrace it. Some fear it.

My experience is that regardless of your gender, if you wish to smash that glass ceiling in business, diversity in your career is something to embrace.

Let me share an example of how this can work well. Earlier in her career, company director Kathryn Fagg made it clear to her then employer, ANZ Banking Group that though she came into the bank in a strategy and project role, she was keen to move to a significant line management role, leading a particular business.

She had come from consulting with McKinsey but knew that to progress her career, a line role with P/L accountability was critical. She initially led the retail bank in two smaller states, and then was appointed as General Manager of the retail bank in New Zealand with 5,000 staff.

She later accepted the role of President of Asia for BlueScope Steel. There were some trade-offs in the move but the opportunity to lead a business across multiple geographies in fast-moving markets was stimulating and rewarding. It also built her capacities for cultural understanding, taking in different points of view and perspectives, as well as compassion and tolerance.

Why is diversity important?

When an organisation is seeking individuals who can do things differently, it can be hard to find them internally if a large percentage of staff have never worked anywhere else, or if they have not been sufficiently curious about how work gets done elsewhere.

The challenge is less if your organisation is large with many different components and different businesses. You might have been able to experience multiple ways of doing things in different types of businesses or services. But if it is just large with the same or similar processes, products or services in every area, then it can be challenging to think really innovatively or tackle a problem in a completely different way.

In a recent address to the Institute of Public Administration Australia, Dr Heather Smith, Secretary / CEO of the Australian Department of Innovation, Industry and Science noted that much of the Australian Public Service had only ever worked in one Department or Agency.

Such lack of diversity was not helpful, as it likely meant that people had not experienced different contexts, different ways of problem solving and different ways of thinking.

Everyone is different but that’s no excuse

A few weeks ago, I was in conversation with a well performing manager (let’s call her Janine) about some options her organisation had offered her.  She had worked in the IT group in two large organisations in her 25-year career, initially in applications roles and as a senior Program Director.  She reported to the Chief Information Officer.

Her dilemma was that she was being offered a line role, running a customer service centre.  Her initial reaction was to decline this opportunity, as it would ‘take her away’ from her IT career.

I had a different reaction, seeing it as a great opportunity and one, which, after some due diligence, she should grab, with open arms. We were each surprised at the other’s reactions.

I was again reminded of my clients’ demand for the breadth of experiences that demonstrates adaptability and a better ability to diagnose issues and tackle different problems.

Time for you to look inward

How diverse has your career been to date? Have you had the opportunity to go into new or different areas in your organisation, or in another organisation? What did you learn from that? How has it informed the way you look at situations? To what extent do you have multiple lenses to look at problems, or different types of experiences to provide you with a broader context for action?

Getting the balance right can be a challenge. Make sure each movement progresses or broadens your experience base, rather than repeating the same experiences.

And of course, too much ‘moving around’ can mean that you never get to experience the ‘fallout’ from what you have commenced, or partially implemented. You may get a reputation for not ‘staying around’ to deal with the reality of implementation.

What do head hunters look for?

In a nine-year period, three years each in three different roles is usually better for your career, learning and development, than four or five different roles in nine years.

A key differentiator of the leaders and managers we place, is the diverse nature of their experience.

Over past years, my colleagues and I have developed and assessed candidate pools for many roles in the public, not-for-profit and commercial sectors.

We’ve also looked at the capabilities and development needs of many hundreds of individuals for development, talent management and succession planning.

What we, and our clients, look for, is variety of experience, built on curiosity and enough depth in one area, that might have been gained in the first seven or eight years of a career.

For example, where has Janine, or Charlie, or Gordon gone outside his or her comfort zone and really stretched him or herself? Where did they take a calculated risk in their career and ‘back’ themselves? What is the spread of their domain and industry experience? How close have they really been to their constituency, whether it be citizens, customers or consumers?

Breaking the glass ceiling is impossible without some form of career diversity

It is hard to be a credible candidate for a senior role, in any area, without some diversity of experience. For example, a key element of the succession planning we have worked on is whether the background of individual executives and managers has real breadth in both strategy or policy shaping, as well as strategic execution or implementation of those strategies.

While you don’t have to be fabulous at both, being great at one and having a reasonable level of competence in the other makes for a well-rounded manager or aspiring executive.

In the public sector, we not infrequently see senior public servants who have moved from state government to federal government, who are great at service delivery but who need some ‘rounding’ in the policy area. This might be gained from a well-designed period of 18-24 months in a central agency. The reverse is also true.

From me to you

If it looks like your background might be a bit too narrow, then it might be time to be proactive about expanding your experiences—either inside or outside your current organisation.

Working for a large internationally focused organisation, or the public sector, might expose you to different areas, geographies, cultures and projects.  

Experience in starting up and closing down a service can be ‘character building’ and usually provides a lot of ‘lessons learnt’.

Or you might have had the opportunity to be seconded to a supplier or customer—something that we find is a great development opportunity. Spending time with a service provider or a consulting organisation can provide great experience seeing things from ‘the other side’. It also helps you then to be a really great client of consulting companies and service providers—demanding but informed—something, which should be a core capability for all executives today.

But for most of us, it might be necessary to shift organisations to get the sort of experience that will provide new ways of looking at problems, the ability to deal well with ambiguity, and a different set of tetchy senior executives to deal with.

The more adventurous your career is, the more diverse your experience. This sometimes results in people working far away from their original expectations.

I started out a teacher, and now I’m a partner in a leadership advisory and executive search company. I would love to hear what you’ve morphed from and to in your career in the comments below.

Adapted from: The Agile Executive: Embracing Career Risks and Rewards by Marianne Broadbent


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