Male Female

It’s a fact. By middle age, say 45-54, women’s career ambitions fade drastically from levels experienced at career start. On the other hand, men stay ambitious. A recent McKinsey study has the numbers to prove it.  Who loses the most?  Businesses do.  Today’s business environment requires diversity, not to make quotas, but to innovate and survive in the global landscape. There is a stronger climate for teams and business units with a blend of hormones—men and women. Factor in what Catalyst, the leading nonprofit women’s research group, found that companies with higher numbers of women in senior management roles make more money.

If business is more competitive than ever and requires more global team work and innovation, why do women lose ambition to advance? I have some answers and solutions to address the shortfall of women executives ready to climb into upper ranks of businesses.

Most of the money in large organizations that is spent on employee development is focused on new employees and executives.  As an executive coach, most of my assignments tend to be with leaders in the 40-54 age range. When I am coaching a woman leader, it feels as though I am trying to help these women rekindle their lost ambition and deserted feminine qualities.

For example, Sally a 20+ year corporate lawyer, with a solid track record was hired by a firm to increase the efficiency of a large department that had been underperforming for a long time.  She embraced the challenge with gusto thinking isolating herself from the team was the best approach to make the tough decisions she expected the project would require. Sally didn’t want to appear weak or too feminine given that she worked in a male-dominated group and had to possibly fire people.  Midway through executing the efficiency plan, her team complained that she overused email to communicate key changes and her boss found her communication and leadership style inflexible.  The General Counsel of the company offered her coaching (by me) as a strategy to salvage what he saw was a talented lawyer, leader, and administrator.  What she discovered in our work together was the importance of using her strengths and building an approach consistent with her feminine sensibilities.  Sally realized that she would have built a stronger team more quickly and probably have fired less people if she had reached out earlier and tried to understand where people were coming from.  She had ignored these inklings to show her concern for others because they seemed contrary to what most people touted as the right approach.

If Sally had not received coaching, she might have become one of the disenfranchised—women who at mid-career realize something is not right.  It is a case study proving McKinsey’s premise and my long held belief that businesses need to offer diversified training. One size does not fit all. Sally’s story is common in my experience.  She began as a confident professional woman with strong technical expertise who rises to a leadership role.  Then she finds herself a minority as a woman, approaching the leadership role differently than her male colleagues. And, she starts to doubt herself because she is different.  The result is that women do not trust their instincts and avoid taking smart risks that are necessary to advance.

We need to shift women’s perspective on what advancement means and how they can customize their path.  Companies need to rethink talent management.

Working in investment banking for over a decade where there is a dirth of women inspired me to create a program to address the needs clients like Sally face—before she takes on a leadership role and almost loses her job.  The goal is to help companies effectively build out the leadership bench with women who are emerging leaders in their late 20s and early 30s. That is why I developed Leadership Launch to focus on building the leadership skills of young women.  This program was developed with senior management at a large investment bank, collaborating with its diversity committee. An investment bank is the perfect incubator for learning about the issues and finding solutions—it’s highly competitive and traditionally male dominated.  The program focuses on educating male managers about the challenges women face and running programs for women-only to build their confidence by focusing on three goals:

  • Increase self-awareness  of individual strengths and areas for improvement
  • Build a supportive network  of both of peers and mentors/sponsors who can help provide the experiences and learning that will build skills
  • Develop a strategic collaborative-competitive mindset and critical interpersonal, influencing and people management skills

Jennifer, a young financial analyst, is typical of the women who have benefited from Leadership Launch.  She joined a large investment bank right out of college and was ranked at the top of her class for five years.  But she was not making the difficult transition to the Vice President role which involves moving from focusing on getting the numbers right to building relationships with clients and managing and influencing others.  Jennifer prided herself on her analytic skills, detail orientation, and flawless execution.  Jennifer suffered from assuming that her excellent work would sell itself and not realizing that the rules had changed in that she needed to have a supportive sponsor(s)who would lobby on her behalf and a strategic network who would be knowledgeable of her work to help her get on the right assignments.  The leadership training helped Jennifer get promoted by teaching her a strategic collaborative-competitive mindset which includes the importance of building a strategic network and becoming organizationally savvy.  Adopting the collaborative-competitive mindset opened up new possibilities for Jennifer because she expanded her view of seeing the current challenge as threatening and cutthroat to viewing this opportunity as a chance to grow and find her own competitive sensibilities.    Jeff McDermott, Managing Director of Greentech Capital Advisors and former Joint Global Head of Investment Banking at UBS, has been a leader and supportive of women bankers, describes what Jennifer and many women need to learn:

“Women’s diverse views are in demand in the C suite.  They need to remain aware that success becomes highly subjective as they become more senior. When weighing who gets the promotion or the stretch job, it is human nature for personal loyalty and chemistry to come into play.  The “nod” is sometimes based more on loyalty than on results and hard work.  To build loyalty, women need to bring their unique personalities to the office and cultivate authentic relationships with prospective mentors and powerful peers. Woman can be themselves, play the game by their own rules and successfully navigate organizational politics and build loyal allies. However, they need to make these efforts an equal priority with the delivery of results. ”

Women Ally

That is why it was gratifying for me to read the recent Wall Street Journal article that draws on the McKinsey study in which the reporter urged businesses to offer leadership training and coaching for women early on their career so we keep women’s motivations high as in Jennifer’s case and avoid the mid-career pitfall as endured by Sally. Leadership Launch is designed to get senior management to walk the talk and support women’s success plus to deliver the training with small groups of women so they can learn how to coach and push each other to bring their unique views and skills to play the game by their own rules.


4 Responses to Female Ambition is a Terrible Thing to Waste

  1. Vinanti Sarkar says:

    With your permission,I would like to copy this article for my website: VOICES OF WOMEN WORLDWIDE at to direct them into thinking seriously about what you have written in your blog. Especially all those ambitious young women and matured women working in Corporate America.

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