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Why women must break out of their comfort zone to advance

Women often feel secure in knowledge-based roles, and their bosses are at ease keeping them there. But to grow a career, it’s necessary to acquire a new set of skills.

Early in her career, Grace (not her real name) worked hard to become an indispensable deputy who could be counted on to get projects organized and produce measurable business results. These talents translated into several promotions ahead of her colleagues.

Grace’s boss had identified her as a potential successor. After all, her performance reviews continued to be excellent and she was recognized by other senior executives as a valuable contributor to the team’s success. But when Grace’s boss got a promotion, the company chose someone else to succeed him — a man from a different unit. Grace felt blindsided and began to wonder about the “old boys’ network” and the “glass ceiling.”

People talk about the glass ceiling at every company I visit. Some women complain about being restricted by it. Others tell tales of shattering it. CEOs say they’re trying to eliminate it. What’s not well appreciated, let alone discussed, is its complexity.

Calling this barrier “glass” implies that it’s brittle, solely external, and easily smashed with a hard-enough blow. But in fact, it’s malleable, more internal than we often admit, and held in place by many of us without our even realizing it. This blockade lives where two comfort zones intersect: women’s own comfort with working in an expertise-based role, and both senior men and women’s comfort with keeping women in this type of job. This combination of preferences creates an invisible barrier between knowledge-based and spanning roles — a barrier that looks an awful lot like a glass ceiling.

If you’re like many women leaders, you’ve spent years proving that you have at least as much skill in your field as anyone else in your organization, and your confidence comes from that mastery. You’ve found your comfort zone. But when you aim to take a position with a broader scope, you need to have the skills of a spanning leader, a manager who, rather than leading from deep expertise, is adept at working across boundaries of knowledge. Spanning leadership isn’t about executing tasks yourself and having specific know-how. It’s about being the enabler who focuses the team on key priorities, inspires others, and motivates reports to deliver even more than they thought they could. Spanning leaders mobilize others’ knowledge instead of adding to it.

Grace wasn’t seen as a spanning leader and she wasn’t aware that she needed to be one. She also didn’t realize that her role as a knowledge-based leader had become a comfort zone. At the same time, it was also safe for the organization to keep Grace in a position of knowledge-based leadership. Many senior leaders want people working for them who will make things happen, manage the details, deliver high quality, and push others for results. Organizations often seem particularly comfortable having high-powered women in these roles.

How can women break through the barrier and become spanning leaders? There are many ways to step out of the expertise comfort zone.

• Seek leadership roles outside of your expertise. Most organizations have company-wide networks, which require volunteers to lead committees, organize events, and discover the needs of members. Activities such as these give you the opportunity to engage with a broad range of people, discuss strategy, and set priorities; they also push you to speak in public, develop executive presence, and learn to work through others.

• Lead people who are senior to you. Many volunteer positions involve interacting with boards of advisors or supervisory councils. These are good environments for learning to lead people up the executive ladder. Getting involved with recruitment activities can also build spanning skills. When you are recruiting new graduates, you will be interacting with hiring managers who are more senior than you and who are from different areas of the business.

• Fight perfectionism. Perfectionism isn’t strictly a women’s issue, but many women who have come up in knowledge-based careers tend to develop an obsession about the quality of their output. Perfectionism becomes a lifelong identity trait that can undermine attempts to get promoted — your boss may pigeonhole you as someone who is a great executor but not a strategist. Giving up perfectionism isn’t a matter of allowing yourself to get sloppy. Rather, it’s avoiding time-wasting efforts that improve your output by that last 1 percent. Don’t get bogged down agonizing over the typeface or the margins in your presentations. Avoid wasting time and resources on things that don’t add sufficient value.

• Notice how other leaders add value. Track leaders who are widely admired. Ask people what these leaders do that benefits the organization. Notice how these leaders are described. Observe what actions the organization values most — you’ll find that list is more about how people feel when working with these leaders rather than the knowledge they provide.

• Find a mentor. A good mentor who can coach you on developing spanning skills is invaluable. Ideally, this person won’t be in your immediate chain of command — you want someone who can be objective about what’s good for your career, rather than what is best for your department. This spanning mentor is unlikely to be someone who has been assigned to this role. There must be a good emotional connection between the two of you, otherwise trust won’t be strong. Look for someone you admire. Ask that person for advice and, if it goes well, come back for more.

A blockade lives where two comfort zones intersect: women’s own comfort with working in an expertise-based role, and both senior men and women’s comfort with keeping women in this type of job.

Ultimately, Grace found a powerful mentor. She had made it clear to senior executives throughout her career that she wanted to run a business with P&L accountability, but when she told her mentor this, he shared with her some sobering words: If she stayed in her knowledge role more than another year, she wouldn’t get to a P&L role. He told her that she needed to move now, and move laterally, where she could gain the spanning-leadership skills and experience she needed to advance.

Grace had a lot of work to do, but she also had a wise sounding board helping her see and seize options quickly. Her mentor’s candid guidance and push made all the difference in Grace’s next step and ultimately in her career trajectory. That lateral move did eventually lead her into the type of role she wanted and from there to roles with increasing responsibility. Now Grace encourages other employees who are stuck in the safety zone of expertise to venture out and become spanning leaders.

If you identify with Grace and aspire to have greater impact on your organization, you must begin to develop the skills of a spanning leader in your current role. If you are a mentor and advisor, keep pushing. What may seem like a risky move is more likely a career builder.

Wanda T. Wallace

Dr. Wanda T. Wallace, managing partner of Leadership Forum, coaches, facilitates, and speaks on improving leadership through better conversations. She hosts the weekly radio show and podcast “Out of the Comfort Zone” and is the author of You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise.

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