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Leadership Attributes as Leadership Search Roadblocks

Why Women Continue to Fall Short in Searches and How “Womanizing” Can Help
By Bridget McNamer
Leadership Attributes as Leadership Search Roadblocks

Photo by Lotje Fotografeert

Phew! With 2020 finally and thankfully in the rearview mirror, 2021 looms as a blank landscape for fresh thinking on so many issues. Having coached 30+ women leaders in the past year as they’ve navigated the leadership search process, I see great possibilities for advancing women in leadership positions in international schools. I’m also seeing patterns and trends that provide clues to why women still aren’t having the success they deserve in the leadership search. What I’m realizing is that some of the same attributes that make so many women effective leaders stand as obstacles to their success in the search process.

Here are some key leadership attributes I’ve observed in the women I’ve coached that result in roadblocks during the leadership search:

They are focused on doing their current job very well. Having taken on a leadership role (usually after years of being in the trenches as teachers and teacher-leaders) they take it seriously. They want to prove to themselves and others that they are capable of leading at the highest level. This is especially the case for those who have experienced skepticism from cultural forces suggesting women cannot be as effective as men in leadership roles.

In the leadership search process, this attribute shows up as a roadblock in that many women who would be great fits for a leadership position are not looking at job postings 12–18 months out from the start date. Indeed, many women leaders who have been successful candidates in a leadership search say they weren’t necessarily looking but were ‘tapped’ or ‘nudged’ by other leaders or recruiters who were aware of their leadership strengths and saw them as a good fit for this specific position.

They lead with empathy. They care deeply about their staff, students, and other members of their school community. They seek to understand the perspectives, abilities, and needs of these community members, and to incorporate that into their decision-making. Empathy allows these leaders to gain insight, strengthen bonds, listen attentively with the goal to understand, demonstrate care, and communicate in a way that makes others feel respected.

In the leadership search process, empathy shows up as an obstacle in a couple of ways: 1) some recruiters view empathy as an inability to make “hard” decisions, especially about personnel (a faulty assumption; hard decisions can be made and executed more effectively if there is empathy involved). 2) Empathetic leaders can feel wary about moving to a new position, feeling as though they may be letting their current community down.

They are humble. They realize that leading a school is a collaborative effort rather than a solo endeavor. They are likely to give credit for accomplishments to their team rather than claim it for themselves. Their focus is on the greater purpose served by the school, and they engage their teams and entire school communities in pursuit of that.

In the leadership search process, humility may hinder a female candidate’s success in that she may not as readily point to personal accomplishments in her application materials and interviews, deferring instead to team accomplishments. This may strike some recruiters as lack of personal accomplishment and/or lack of confidence in her leadership abilities.

To be sure, these leadership traits are not limited to women. Plenty of strong male leaders also possess these. However, males have advantages in the leadership search process simply by virtue of being males. They fit the prototype of leader that predominates the current international school ethos, and around which the current recruiting process has been shaped.

My main point is that, if recruiters are serious about bringing more women into leadership roles, they would do well to “womanize” the search process. Some ideas to get you started:

  • Reconsider the time frame for launching leadership searches. Is it really necessary to launch the search more than 12 months out from the start date? I know of no other industry where such long lead times exist, even factoring in the time-consuming details of relocating an executive and her family from one country to another. Further, as we all know, so much can happen in one school year—both at the school level and in the personal life of a leader—that can make the difference in how strong a “fit” exists there. Then there’s the “lame duck” scenario, which can stretch out for more than a year. That’s a long time for a school and its constituents to be in a leadership transition phase.
  • Rethink your approach to sourcing candidates. Simply posting a position on your school website or “known” leadership listing sites and relying on current job seekers to apply may mean you are missing out on talented leaders who aren’t currently looking for jobs. Consider taking proactive measures to identify such talent, particularly if you’re serious about bringing more women into the mix. This can include tapping into networks of female leaders (I know of several), participating in webinars or conferences where female leaders gather, posting on social media sites, and asking recipients to forward the position announcement to women leaders who fit the profile. Yes, it’s more work. If you’re serious about getting more women candidates, it’s worth it.
  • Revise your application and evaluation process. This can start with the position announcement. Choose content and visuals with female applicants in mind (I have thoughts about that). When reviewing application materials, conducting interviews, and speaking with references, screen with empathy and humility in mind when probing for accomplishments (I have ideas for that).

I look forward to engaging more fully with the international school community to probe these ideas further and see how we can womanize the leadership search process with greater progress for gender equity by the end of 2021.

Bridget McNamer is Founder and Chief Navigation Officer of Sidecar Counsel, which aims to enhance the contributions of women leaders in international schools through leadership job search coaching, executive coaching, school consultations, and purposeful convenings.

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01/21/2021 - DV
Dear Bridget,

Thank you for a great article and for your faithful insight on female leaders traits. I am a female leader and have been a head for over 25 years; I started young, in a small school I founded and where I grew and developed myself, along with best practice and the school. Subsequently I followed the wind like Mary Poppins and experienced amazing adventures leading schools lage cities in the US and in several continents. I saw a lot, met many wonderful people and learnt a great deal. The experience enhanced my leadership, thus none of these schools were meant to be a long term commitment. I took those jobs with good will and good faith because my choices were limited. However those schools, mostly for profit, did not bring me the freedom and the resources to make a real difference in the lives of their students, nor the excitement and thrill I was seeking. My past years have been a true quest searching for “true love”. It always amuses me when I apply for a position unsuccessfully, to receive feedback from the consultant mentioning the huge number of applications and the skills of “extremely experienced candidates”. Needless to say that with 25 years of headship in my portfolio I cannot imagine that there are numerous candidates ahead of me. The thing is: when women do not make it to the very first interview from the consultant, they hardly will interest the search committee.
However I will confess that my best supporters and most engaged cheerleaders have been female consultants who believed in my skills; and this is priceless. I hope that your article will open up the minds and hearts to the wonderful talents and priceless approach of female leaders.