OPINION8 March 2023

The end of leaning in: How can businesses support different kinds of leadership?

Inclusion News People

The women’s leadership discussion has shifted. Zoe Fenn examines how research businesses can support the leaders of today and tomorrow, looking at what cultural shifts are required.

female business leader addressing a group of employees

Exactly 10 years ago, to coincide with International Women’s Day 2013, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead was first published.

Along with other books from that era, like The Confidence Code (published April 2014), it was a bible for my generation, who were assuming their first leadership and managerial responsibilities in the world of research and insight. From these seminal books and the discourse they sparked, we believed that we could have it all; that a career was a ladder to be climbed, and that as women, we inherently lacked confidence.

A decade on, the Lean In message has unravelled. The McKinsey and LeanIn.org study Women in the Workplace 2022, found that women are still not rising up to leadership roles on a par with men, and the gap widens the higher they go.

The study of 333 organisations and more than 40,000 employees found that women hold:

  •        48% of entry level positions
  •        40% of management positions
  •        36% of senior manager director positions
  •        32% of vice-president positions
  •        28% of senior vice-president positions.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, the leadership debate has radically shifted.

A broader definition of success
Success isn’t one size fits all. Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper, authors of The Squiggly Career, advocate that the best career path isn’t always a straight line. No longer are we motivated by how far and how fast we can progress, but we’re increasingly interested in exploring new opportunities, not linked to what we’ve done before.

From confidence to courage
Confidence is speaking loudly and authoritatively. Courage is being OK with being vulnerable. Brené Brown, whose Ted talk The power of vulnerability is one of the top five most watched Ted talks of all time, believes that when we create environments where people are actively encouraged to be vulnerable, everyone thrives, not just those who have learnt to play the game well.

From fix the woman, to fix the system
The McKinsey/LeanIn.Org study showed that for every one woman at director level who gets promoted, there are two other women directors who choose to leave. It’s not lack of ambition, confidence or grit causing these women to leave: it’s because the culture, environment and systems do not work for them.

What these trends and data show us is that it is no longer the sole responsibility of the individual to fit the leadership mould. The systems need to evolve too. The onus is on the agency to create a culture and environment where everyone, no matter their gender, ethnicity, background, skillset and personality type can thrive.

If research agencies want to hold onto their top talent, especially at the leadership levels, then they must create environments which chime with this new era of leadership, and put curiosity, connection and courage at their heart.

What can agencies practically do?

Create psychologically safe environments
Our industry needs more courageous leaders, yet our culture still rewards compliance, conformity and accuracy. Agencies need to create spaces where people feel comfortable saying “I don’t know, I messed up” or “I feel excluded”. They need their leaders to model this behaviour, being open with their people when they don’t have the answer or make a mistake.

Promote curiosity
When it comes to progression, too often it’s defined in the classic ‘Lean In’ terms of pay and promotion. This is limiting. We can encourage a much more curious and experimental mindset by having career conversations rather than promotion discussions, offering ‘job safaris’ to experience different parts of the agency or network, and creating reward structures around learning and experimentation.

Create connections
Hybrid working has given us a lot of freedom and autonomy, but meaningful connection has been a casualty. At leadership levels especially, networks are a superpower, vital for advocacy, advice and inspiration. Agencies can no longer rely on serendipitous interactions, but need to consciously design moments of connection, from large-scale cultural gatherings to coffee connects.

None of this is easy, but it is possible. Ten years on from Sandberg and we have a new model for leadership that will cultivate a generation of more diverse, human and courageous leaders for our industry. It’s now up to the research and insight world to put in place the systemic changes needed to make this happen.

Zoe Fenn is the founder of You Burn Bright