Ambition to Lead: Exercise Your Power

Friendly businesswoman standing with her colleaguesBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

On this election day, Tiffany Dufu, President of The White House Project, has a message for women. “You are the most powerful change agent in your own journey. Exercise your power. Vote.”

Dufu’s words come as a reminder that the prevalence of women in leadership has not existed for long. Throughout history, there have indeed been notable women in positions of power – but they were rare. The era we live in is unlike any before, in terms of the power women can wield in the public space.

That’s not to say that women have, by any stretch of the imagination, attained equality of representation – either in politics or in business. This is a detriment to everyone – study after study has shown that a diverse group of people at the top produces a stronger result. Diverse groups reach conclusions that are at the same time more innovative and more considered.

“We need women leaders,” Dufu said. “We don’t have enough women in leadership in business or in politics. We have, in fact, people at the highest levels of business and politics who impact every single one of us. And until this group is truly a diversity of voices, the biggest crisis we have is a crisis of leadership.”

Measuring Power

The White House Project is a non-partisan, non-profit group with a mission to connect, coach, and educate women early in their careers to “activate the ambition, creativity, and skills necessary for innovative and effective leadership.” Late last month, the group released a few of the key findings revealed in the latest edition of its report, Benchmarking Women’s Leadership (due out in March). Led by Tiffani Lennon, Ph.D., a professor at The Women’s College of the University of Denver, the research suggests that women show an outsized return on investment compared to their male peers.

For example, the research showed that at companies with women on their boards, net income growth averaged 14 percent over the past six years. Companies with no female directors averaged only ten percent growth.

Yet, women constitute a minority in leadership. Across all government agencies in 2012, women only represented 26 percent of senior leadership. Women only held 26 percent of federal judgeships. Women hold less than 17 percent of the seats in Congress.

Turning to the private sector, women now make up about half of workers in the US. But, on average, women account for very few of the senior leadership roles. For example, women only hold 11.8 percent of leadership roles at the top ten biggest companies, the study finds.

Dufu says the disparity between the two sectors is not surprising. “We have more women in leadership in politics due to the fact that we have a solid democracy. Women have just as much a possibility to win as their male counterparts – we just don’t have as many women running for office.”

The top-down nature of leader selection in the private sector makes breaking into the network of power more difficult for so-called outsiders. But women leaders continue to challenge the status quo, and studies like this one, that show the advantages of diverse leadership, can help them.

Realizing Your Own Power

Women leaders are increasing in prevalence around the world. But that doesn’t make it easy, especially since many women are still learning to get comfortable with their own potential power. “I think women are more ambivalent about ambition,” Dufu said. She credited the book Necessary Dreams by Anna Fels in changing the way she thought about ambition.

“It’s the desire to achieve mastery of your craft – along with the desire to be recognized for it.”

“It’s part of why organizations like The White House Project exist,” she continued. “Pursuing ambition is not just for your own development. You can bring your own diverse perspective as a powerful person at the top level, and you can work toward better solutions for all of us.”

Dufu encouraged women to tap into that sense of ambition – one that results in a better reality for the collective. When it comes to achieving leadership, she continued, it may help to take stock of your own “success equation.”

“The first part is knowing your leadership assets. That’s being visible – seeing your self as a viable candidate for leadership, having political savvy – understanding the system and knowing how to navigate that system, and storytelling – being an effective storyteller.”

She continued, “And then there’s a second part of that equation around ambition – actively pursuing and attaining power and influence. You don’t need to know what what’s at the top of the stairs, just what the next step is.”

Finally, she said, “the last part of the success equation is around access – making sure you have the mentors and the sponsors you need to be effective.”

During the past few years, the notion of sponsorship has been an increasingly large part of the conversation around women and power. Sponsors pull you through the ranks of power, by nominating you for key projects or promotions, or supporting you behind the scenes, in the meetings and discussions you’re not privy to.

“At The White House Project, when we talk about sponsorship and mentorship, we define mentorship as what people say to you when you’re in the room. Sponsorship is what they say to other people about you when you’re not in the room,” Dufu explained. “And influential women can expend their social, political, and economic power to pull other women up beside them.”

Today, the growing number of influential women leaders in the public and private sectors also have the opportunity to choose whom they mentor, sponsor, and pull up the through ranks alongside them as decision makers. And that’s real power.