But in addition to mentoring, I’m seeing an even more pressing need for teaching. Specifically, teaching business fundamentals. Much of the discussion at women’s conferences focuses on personal actions, emotional intelligence, building self-confidence and creating a personal brand. This is all valid, but gender equity platforms need more rigor around the mechanics of business. Fundamental business smarts are what will truly move women forward, and women are recognizing this. Frustrated with the slow progress in corporate environments, more women are going into business for themselves, founding companies at a historic rate. According to a recent study, women-owned businesses currently account for 30% of all businesses worldwide.
One of my favorite Ted talks is Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get, by Susan Colantuono, CEO of Leading Women. She pointed out that the most important skill set that determines whether women in business move up the ladder and out of the bog of middle management, where 50% of the workforce historically is women: “has to do with understanding where the organization is going, what its strategy is, what financial targets it has in place, and understanding your role in moving the organization forward. This is that missing 33% of the career success equation for women, not because it’s missing in our capabilities or abilities, but because it’s missing in the advice that we’re given.”
Teaching women how a company runs is key. We need to develop learning around business and financial skills—the kind of expertise that contributes directly to a company’s success and profitability. We need to expand the offerings at conferences to also include business overview and training. Fundamentals like understanding the mechanics of P&L, why the balance sheet is probably the most important financial document, and how to interpret legal documents, are examples that women at the mid-level should be exposed.
Of course, not all staffers are interested in such details (regardless of gender). In our industry, we have creatives, brand planners and designers who laser focus on the content we produce. Nevertheless, as agency leaders it’s incumbent upon us to identify and nurture the businessperson within our employees, especially women. At our agency, we’ve started a program to teach our creatives how to understand and consider business objectives when creating campaigns. We not only teach our agency’s business model, we teach our client’s business model. The same program can be applied to teaching women as well.
As Susan points out in her TED talk, companies achieve their financial goals when “everyone is pulling in the same direction” in strategic alignment. It’s in our own self-interest as business leaders to teach women more than just self-esteem and assertiveness in business. We want people who will help companies move our business. We need to lean into the hard skills, not the soft skills. Understanding business fundamentals will propel women into the higher ranks. Once they have the tools, they really will become empowered.
Originally published in Ad Age.