When Leadership Skills Are Not Enough

Harvard Business Review recently published a study aptly titled Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills. The report outlines this (not surprising) finding:

“…women in leadership positions are perceived just as — if not more — competent as their male counterparts.

Still, the disturbing fact is that the percentage of women in senior leadership roles in businesses has remained relatively steady since we conducted our original research. Only 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs are women. And those numbers are declining globally.

This is one of the many reasons why I don't do out of the box leadership skills assessments with my clients. Most of my clients are women and LGBTQ folks who work in male-dominated fields. When they start working with me, they are competent as fuck. Yet they're not advancing as much or as easily as they would like. Or they’re advancing, but don’t feel confident in their capabilities (which impacts future opportunities to grow and make an impact at work). Here’s why.

Why this happens

1. Management skills matter, but they don't get you promoted. When women and underrepresented folks come to me for help, they're already ridiculously competent managers. They do SO much work behind the scenes, but don't get the credit, compensation, or titles they deserve (yet...more on that below).

On the other hand, my middle management and executive level white dude clients (you know who you are, I love you!) get promoted for showing up. They're seen as leaders even when their management chops are nascent. They come to me to unlock their potential so that they can OWN their positions. Kudos...but to be completely honest: even without my help, these men would continue to be promoted, get raises, and be seen as leaders in their organizations. It would just feel challenging...which is no fun. And I love helping.

I can't say the same for many of the women I work with. They sadly need to do more than just showing up (more on that in a sec).

2. Asking for what you want is not enough. You might be wondering: women don't get paid enough because they don't negotiate, right? Women aren't promoted because they don't ask, right?

Bullshit. I used to think that. I was wrong. Asking for what you want is the tip of the iceberg.

Own your story

If you want to advance at work (and in life), you can

a) Have your story written for you and happen to you.

Or you can b) write YOUR story and then bring your story to life.

WTF do I mean by story?

Your story is something you know in your brain and more importantly feel in your heart and body. It's who you are, where you came from, who you work with, how you work, what you value, what value you provide, and ultimately where you're going...and how.

When you spend your life falling into promotions and fortunate situations, that story is written for you. When that happens, you need to make sure that your story and actions align. You can do this by building skills, confidence, humility, and clarity on your value and values.

But when you've spent your life being overlooked, expected to fill certain roles, or told that you're too loud or don't speak up enough...at home, school, work, all of it. Fuck. You have to find your story from within. Management skills not required (you probably already have them or, honestly, you can learn them later on the job…that’s how every man I’ve seen do it…they all turn out fine). Because the story that’s otherwise written for you is not casting you as the hero. And wouldn’t you rather be the hero?

Btw, if you're still like WTF, here's what owning your story looks like:

Find your story

So...how do you find your story? Here are a few things you can try:

Map it out

Start with your ending

Embrace your horror stories

• Act it out (improv)

• I could go on...

(btw, I’ve got worksheets you can use to try this all out at home…have fun! And let me know how it goes.)

Bring your story to life

Once you have an idea of what your story is or can be, prototype your story…make it real. If you work in tech like most of my clients, do, the good news is that you already know how to do this:

Build > Measure > Learn

Rinse. Repeat.

...in whatever order you want:

What if it doesn't work? Owning your story is not about trying or failing. It's about exploring, learning (by seeking data…so much data), and finding yourself. You might not know where this journey will take you*. But getting there is part of the journey. And all of that...is your story.

You've got this.

* A note on thriving within bullshit systems: I've coached almost 100 people over the last few years, 80% of which have been women. Only 2 in that time have had to leave their jobs because the system was not set up for them to thrive. This is not easy work, but it is doable.**

** I wish we didn't have to do this work at all, honestly. Because the irony of women having to do so much work to get something is that we're already doing so much work which is part of the problem!

That all said…I’m all in. Let’s do this.

Adapted from this tweetstorm.


Hi, I'm Donna. I’m a leadership coach, speaker, and author. I help leaders in tech and tech adjacent fields unlock their superpowers so that they can get unstuck, level up, lead more effectively, and make an impact at work and in life. Let’s work together.