7 Common Mistakes When Implementing Women’s Leadership Programmes

7 MistakesThe ‘female-only’ approach to leadership programmes continues to be hotly debated. For me, and for many of our clients, it’s not so much a question of whether to or not, but rather how to make them a success. This article addresses seven surprisingly common mistakes, made by even the top organisations, and offers some solutions.

Mistake #1: Women’s leadership programmes are run in isolation

Diversity has been a focus for many decades and gender training programmes have often sprung up as a well-intended means of addressing the imbalance of men and women in senior roles. The trouble is that this approach points at women as the problem and sends out the wrong message. Whilst nothing around them changes, women are encouraged to adapt their natural style to navigate a cultural construct initiated by a certain privileged group. Rather than leveraging the value difference can bring, the characteristics of the privileged group are sustained.

Women’s leadership training should be implemented as part of a broader inclusion initiative. That way participants can learn how to deploy their authentic leadership style in an environment that is evolving to truly recognise and capture the value of difference.

Mistake #2: Failure to communicate WHY we are doing this

The answer to the WHY question provides a motivation for action. Miss this out and you will encounter (at best) inertia and (at worst) resistance.

Start at the top by communicating the issues facing the organisation; share gender breakdowns by pay grade; cite external research to help employees understand why women are not progressing at a similar rate to men; outline your unique business case for providing a women’s leadership programme.

For many participants the all-female training room will be an alien environment compared with their day-to-day one. I almost always find that there is a sub-group that is initially resistant to being there. Sharing the WHY helps them to understand how they can gain value for themselves and for the organisation.

When should it be communicated? Tell participants at the point of nomination for the programme; include it in the joining instructions / welcome pack; and reinforce the message when they are together at the start of the programme.

Mistake # 3: Ineffective support from senior sponsors

Naming a figurehead as the sponsor for gender diversity or your women’s network is not enough. They need to be visible and vocal and share their personal observations and stories. Don’t tell them what to say, but instead make sure they understand your broader gender objectives and the content of your women’s leadership programmes. Having a senior sponsor, male or female, kick off your women’s leadership programme is always a good idea. Remember to brief them fully.

Mistake # 4: An unclear nomination process

The process for selecting which of your women should attend the programme is crucial. I’ve known women arrive for training with no idea of how they came to be there. Leaving this open to self-interpretation is not a good idea!

Be clear about your target group and the reasons why. Communicate this to the participants and to their line managers. Which takes us neatly to the next point.

Mistake # 5: Insufficient engagement of line managers

Research shows that the single biggest determinant of whether training will be effectively implemented back in the workplace is the attitude and support of the line manager. With women’s leadership training this is especially critical because, even with the best intentions, a line manager can unwittingly undermine the efforts of a subordinate as they seek to grow and develop their leadership style.

Encourage line managers to talk to their female direct reports before, during and after the programme; help them listen to understand what kind of support is needed.

PDT provides training for managers to help them support their direct reports who attend the training – in order to maximise the effects for the individual and for the organisation. If you’d like to experience our approach, we’d be happy to discuss a complimentary session – contact us to find out more.

Mistake #6: Missed opportunities to use training time effectively

Given the global nature and demands of 21st Century working it can be difficult to take people out of the workplace for training. It is crucial therefore to find ways to use the time allocated effectively.

I am frequently told that participants will be unwilling or unable to complete pre-work, yet some individual thought and preparation up front can add greatly to the engagement and progress in the classroom. Three tips on pre-work:

  • Make sure the ‘why’ is clearly communicated (see Mistake #2)
  • Involve the line manager
  • Include an opportunity for the participants to learn something about themselves (for example by using a psychometric assessment tool).

Leverage the value of the programme after it has finished by setting some post-work – perhaps by encouraging participants to pair up with a buddy or create a Lean In Circle.

A blended approach that combines virtual sessions and individual learning with classroom training helps achieve the best value for money.

Mistake #7: Failure to measure results

Whilst it can be difficult to isolate the individual effects of a training programme as a contributor to increased progression of women, more can be done to evaluate the programme than simply implementing the common post-event questionnaire.

PDT has been working for a number of years with Cisco, delivering aspects of their JUMP and DARE programmes for women (this Fortune article from March gives more details). Cisco tracks the effectiveness of their programmes by conducting employee surveys.

Anecdotal feedback from line managers provides an interesting aspect, and can help with tracking the progression of women who have attended the programmes.

For the seasoned HR or Learning & Development professional, these steps will not come as any great surprise. What is surprising, however, is how often one or more of them is overlooked in the implementation of women’s leadership programmes.

If you would like to discuss creative ways for delivering the right programme for your organisation, or are interested in experiencing our unique programme for line managers, we’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact us for an informal discussion.


Helen Krag is a Senior Consultant Trainer at PDT Global