Know Thyself...and Other Leadership Development Insights for Women in Fortune 500 Companies

Know Thyself...and Other Leadership Development Insights for Women in Fortune 500 Companies

Role Models & Networks

There was a theme for all of the interviewees around wishing there were more women role models during their ascent. All of the women said they wished they had more access to other female leaders as they were progressing through their careers.

As mentioned, comments on the importance of female networks were also prevalent. The specific stated needs cited for female networks were different. 2 of the 5 felt that a female network can help with support type needs such as how to balance work and family, or how to be authentic as a woman in business (vs. acting like a man). 2 others cited the benefits of a female network for finding women role models.

All of the women interviewed expressed their personal goal of sharing their learning with other women coming up the ranks. Some of their reflections included:

  • "There is more acceptance today for diversity in leadership styles, whether you are a man or a woman. In today's world, I would absolutely want women who are just starting their careers to have an appreciation for their own talents and understand, it's good to bring your authentic self to leadership. You don't need to figure out what the men are doing and behave just like that."
  • "If someone would have told me some of the things I've learned along the way earlier, the choices I would have made might have been different. I think getting to women early in their careers and telling them to be proactive in their development from the start is important. For example, I strongly advice seeking stretch assignments as they begin their career paths. Getting experience under their belts to sustain and support them, when and if, those work/life balance years occur can be extremely valuable. Just do them."
  • "Networks of women can be extremely helpful. A woman might not say I need development as a woman, but I certainly need a network of women for many purposes: for support, work/life advice,to bounce ideas off of. So, women's networks can be a source of development, or offer whatever else they need that network for."

Self Identity

One interviewee's explanation on the topic of differentiated leadership development for women, was a major "aha" for me and possibly will be for others. She said:

"I have found that there are women who if they identify as being a women as a big part of their identity then they want to develop along that aspect. For example: for some - being a woman is really, really important, for some people being African-American is really important so developing along that aspect of their identity is as well, you see? So I think if women identify being a 'woman leader' as a main part of their identity then they're going to want programs that help them develop to that one.

If someone is thinking 'its different for women or I don't feel like I fit into that because I am a woman', those are the kinds of things that say okay well that's a big part of your identity. For me, when I have conversations around my own personal development, I don't personally find myself saying 'as a woman I need this'; it's not right or wrong, it's just not how I identify myself."

This conversation for me was intriguing and pivotal in my thinking. What I heard was not in favor or disfavor of differentiated leadership development for women, but that the starting point for whether a woman might benefit from such is at the individual level vs. the gender level.

Current Literature on Differentiated Development

The literature on differentiated leadership also offers findings that suggest women might find it most impactful to seek development that aligns with individual needs. The following offers a compiled list of individual development experiences that may be especially meaningful for women.

Figure 4


To provide fair balance, the study analysis and following recommendations must include the acknowledgement that while the study is based on a reasonably powered literature review, it reflects the experiences of a small number of women. Also, while representing a depth and breath of leadership development, the women in the study have all been in the workplace for 20+ years and therefore their development experiences have taken place over decades when a differentiated option for developing women may not have been available, or may not have been culturally appropriate for their workplaces during the time.

Interpretation & Considerations


The first learning I will assert is simple, yet powerful. The women I interviewed along with those in the emerging body of research are eager to talk about being women leaders in Fortune 500 companies. It's now okay, even welcome, for women to acknowledge that they are women in the workplace vs. dressing and behaving like men. The women talked about the opportunity to behave authentically and to contribute their talents. This might suggest that the theme of networks and role models can be especially valuable right now as women might find the open support and advice of other women especially meaningful in leader development. The literature and the interviews also point to a passion and interest for sharing learning with those women who are just beginning to climb their career ladders. There is also a reported climate of supporting, and welcoming this type of development in Fortune 500s.

Also, the theme of "knowing thyself" and then seeking aligned development was absolutely striking. Hearing this group of women's reflections on their leadership development experiences was definitely a story of meeting individual development needs with meaningful related development experiences making the biggest impact. The delineation of gender differentiating leadership development experiences for women may be very meaningful, yet my research would suggest that we be careful not to make broad brush assumptions. Just as one size does not fit all for leadership development in general, gender based differentiated development experiences created for women may not fit all women! This would in no way suggest we walk away from differentiated leadership development. The assertion here would be to continue to develop, and offer differentiated leadership development for women, yet the entry to those experiences might not be based solely on gender, but selection of the development based on a need.

Finally, this topic is clearly in its infancy. I predict that investigating optimal methods for development of women leaders will be a hot topic in the coming years. There will be more opportunity than ever to inform our practice of meaningful development of women leaders. As more women openly share their experiences, and more "traditional" Fortune 500 companies explore the development needs of women, my hope is that we will see more data compiled in the literature.

Considerations for Women Leaders and Emerging Leaders

Meanwhile, my learning from this project and advice to my female colleagues is that a good place to start in the development of women leaders is around gaining self insight. Seeking opportunities for individual assessments and feedback can provide a compass for development. Adding the element of self identity, and considering how being a woman in the Fortune 500 business environment does or does not factor into that identity or personal leadership challenges, might be a beneficial consideration. Then, for those who find their identity as a female to be very prominent, seeking differentiated development experiences may be especially meaningful.


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