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How Does Gender Fit Into Engagement Strategy?

A recent study finds that men and women have very different ‘motivation sets’

Recent findings from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that half of all managers and administrators in today’s corporations are women, although fewer than 10% of top leaders in Fortune 500 companies are women. Executives tasked with managing leadership development and succession planning initiatives know the host of challenges associated with designing and deploying a successful program, including the imperative to develop and promote men and women in a fair and unbiased manner. What might be less obvious are the gender-based biases that can influence the ultimate success of enterprise education and development efforts aimed at building leadership bench strength.

A study conducted by International Survey Research (ISR) provides insight into the differing perceptions and expectations of men and women as they progress through the management ranks. Drawing on the results of employee opinion surveys, the findings reveal the issues that engage male leaders and female leaders are not identical – one size will not fit all. For instance, engagement among female senior leaders relies on their ability to meet business objectives successfully, whereas engagement among senior male leaders depends upon perceived opportunities for personal advancement. Understanding these differences is critical in order to tailor learning and development programs to meet the needs of both men and women with leadership ambitions.

Junior-Level Execs

Which issues generated the strongest engagement levels for male and female leaders at the junior level? For male junior leaders, the most frequently occurring topic is quality of leadership, which occurs in 27.5% of all results, followed closely by reward and empowerment (each occurring 17.5% of the time) and image (15%). Male junior managers in the study are more engaged when they think they work for a winning company with strong leadership and a positive image in the marketplace, and they receive both adequate rewards for their efforts and empowerment in their work.

For female junior leaders, the ordering isn’t the same. Empowerment is the most frequently occurring topic (23.8%), followed by supervision (19%), as well as career development and work-life balance (9.5% each). These findings suggest female junior leaders in the study are more engaged when they feel empowered in their jobs, think they’re managed by an effective supervisor, have transparent career-path opportunities and can manage work-life balance and job stress concerns.

The keys to engagement for male leaders and female leaders at the junior level are similar only in that both groups seek empowerment in their work. The importance of involvement and authority in the job isn’t surprising, given that these leaders need to demonstrate their skills and abilities to move ahead. They desire autonomy to showcase their leadership competencies.

Beyond empowerment, however, the keys to engagement are quite distinct by gender. Male junior leaders want to think they work for a winning company with highly effective leaders who help promote a strong company image in the marketplace. For female junior leaders, image (0%) and leadership (4.8%) barely register among the key issues. Similarly, rewards (which includes questions about pay and non-material recognition) is among the top issues for male junior leaders, but it barely matters to their female colleagues (4.8%). Among women at the junior level, supervision and career opportunities are important concerns and occur as key issues at frequencies far exceeding those for male leaders at this level. In fact, among male junior leaders, supervision topics represent only 5% of the key issues, and career development topics never emerge as critical. Finally, perhaps reflecting the work-life balance issues of female junior leaders, this topic is among the most important issues for women but is a low-frequency topic for men (2.5%).

Senior-Level Execs

Distinctions in key issues by gender are even more apparent at the senior leadership level. For both men and women, working for a company with strong leadership effectiveness is the most critical issue to ensure engagement. This topic shows up most frequently among the key issues for both women (23.8%) and men (26%). The importance of perceived leadership quality and effectiveness isn’t surprising, given that these employees have now moved into the top ranks of leadership and evaluate their fit within the existing senior leadership team.

Looking beyond the top-occurring issue of leadership, we see that the results diverge considerably. For female senior leaders, three of the next six issues by importance are a collection of topics that together reflect a leader’s ability to succeed at business execution. These topics include the quality of working relationships in work teams (14.3%) and customer quality focus and communication (9.5% each). The remaining three issues are consistent with the key topics for female junior leaders – namely, empowerment, supervision and career development (all at 9.5%).

These findings suggest that women at the senior level are more engaged when they work in an environment designed for success, meaning they have in place the strong employee relations, procedures, policies and alignment with goals needed for high performance. Female senior leaders are focused on the ability of their teams to grow and succeed, and they likely assume team success will mean individual success for them as emerging members of the senior leadership cadre.

The key themes differ for male senior leaders. Beyond the common issue of leadership, engagement among male senior leaders is driven by career development opportunities (19.4%), supervision (12.9%) and rewards (9.7%). The specific survey questions of most importance in these areas address:

  • Opportunities for personal development and growth
  • Promoting qualified candidates from within the organization before looking outside
  • Providing a clear sense of company direction
  • Fairness of pay compared with co-workers
  • Effective communication from immediate supervisors.

This set of topics collectively represents a concern with personal advancement among senior male leaders. They are more engaged when they work in a company that provides them with growth potential, puts a premium on promoting long-term employees, pays them fairly compared with colleagues and communicates clear corporate strategy.

Also significant are some issues with especially low frequency among both male and female senior leaders. Specifically, rewards – although fourth in importance for men – never appears as a key topic for women at the senior level. Work-life balance, among the top issues for women at the junior level, is noticeably absent as a key issue among female senior leaders. However, work-life balance does emerge with moderate frequency (6.5%) among male senior leaders. These patterns suggest women at the junior level might take the steps necessary to resolve work-life concerns at this key developmental phase of their careers, whereas this issue only begins to gain relevance for men at the most senior levels. Finally, company image, which is a critical issue for male junior leaders, barely registers as a top issue for male senior leaders (3.2%), and it remains absent from the key issues for female senior leaders.

Results and Implications

These findings indicate that the issues that engage male and female leaders in their jobs differ dramatically. Consequently, a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development likely will prove ineffective. The results are particularly informative at the senior level. As men and women seek to advance to the top rungs of the leadership ladder, they require different motivators: Men seek a context in which they can continue to develop and are rewarded handsomely for doing so, and women seek an environment where they’re well-equipped to succeed at business execution.

In light of these findings, an effective leadership development strategy needs to target both sets of aspirations. Leadership competency models that hold managers responsible for business success (within an environment that provides the tools to achieve that end) should appeal to female leaders and provide a template to evaluate all leaders equally. Strategies executed within an environment that offer clear opportunities to grow and advance and that link development directly to reward – characteristics that should appeal especially to men – provide all leaders, regardless of their gender, with the learning and development opportunities that can further their career ambitions.

Patrick Kulesa, Ph.D., is the Global Research Director of International Survey Research. This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine. © 2007. Used with permission.

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