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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Diversifying Data Leadership During COVID-19

The pandemic era presents an opportunity to accelerate paths of promoting women leaders and growing the diversity of organizations.

COVID-19 has provided an exceptional example of women's strength as transformational leaders with the highly effective responses displayed by female-led countries . Despite this example, and many others that illustrate how well women lead through stressful challenges, the number of women in corporate leadership roles remains low, as shown by the 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs that are women. Overcoming this disparity requires companies to prioritize change, and COVID-19 offers a rare opportunity to accelerate known paths for promoting transformational women leaders within tech and data companies.

For Further Reading:

Being a Catalyst in Times of Crisis: 4 Lessons in Leadership

New Data Can Help Leaders Improve Communications During COVID-19

The Impact of COVID-19 on Data and Analytics Professionals

Core competencies shared by transformational leaders, laid out by James V. Downton in 1973, then furthered by Bernard M. Bass in 1985, have since been strengthened by additional research revealing that transformational leaders are those who:

  • Motivate and foster team development
  • Live out company values and encourage others to do the same
  • Encourage a company culture that emphasizes the common good over self-interest
  • Exemplify authenticity, cooperation, and open communication
  • Act as coach and mentor while enabling responsibility and self-determination

These leadership traits, although valuable at any time, become critical during a global crisis such as COVID-19, and they have been shown to occur more frequently in women. Although the crisis has placed increased personal burdens on many professional women, including lack of childcare, extended family needs, and disrupted support networks, we see women rising to not only meet these challenges but use these leadership qualities to tackle those faced in the workplace as well. As women repeatedly display skills in successfully leading teams to overcome obstacles, companies have an opportunity to recognize and reward these achievements through advancement.

According to Deloitte's report on diversity in technology leadership, "the percentage of women graduating with computer science degrees has dropped -- from 40 percent in the 1980s to less than 20 percent today." Despite this drop, volumes of research has produced proven ways companies can foster more women in leadership roles. These recommendations fall into three areas: enabling confidence, establishing support networks, and raising company awareness. One study, completed by KPMG, suggested actions companies should consider to grow the number of women in leadership roles.

Here are opportunities where I see COVID-19 as an opening for accelerated change.

Actively Engage Potential Leaders

Confidence is gained from recognition, encouragement, and creating opportunities for identified candidates to shine. Because women in tech often do not see their gender reflected throughout their company's current leadership, these confidence-building activities fill a vital role in helping women truly garner leadership skills. Specific process changes designed to identify and support female leaders will vary, but the important step lies in prioritizing the discipline and then outlining what your company will do to accomplish the engagement goal.

For Further Reading:

Being a Catalyst in Times of Crisis: 4 Lessons in Leadership

New Data Can Help Leaders Improve Communications During COVID-19

The Impact of COVID-19 on Data and Analytics Professionals

COVID-19 accelerator: With many companies working remotely, regular one-to-one check-in's have become vital to productivity and project success. Encourage managers to use part of this time to ask achievers about their leadership goals and suggest ways to foster them.

Treat Leadership as a Tangible Skill

In tech and big data, we have done an excellent job of fostering achievements across a wide range of technical skills. From coding languages to software platforms to role-based certifications, these "hard" skills are easily promoted, encouraged, and resumé-featured. What if we treated "soft" skills, such as leadership, in the same way?

The first step is for companies to place a high value on such skills, promoting training programs, meetups, events, and other paths to gaining tangible leadership expertise.

COVID-19 accelerator: Digital learning has become even more widely accessible during COVID-19. Many people are finding more time to devote to soft skill development, such as leadership training. Provide your teams with access to recommended courses, self-paced or live, as your needs dictate and encourage women to take advantage of them.

Establish Relationships and Networks

Throughout my career, I have benefited enormously from a priceless network of mentors and leaders I am honored to call friends. Executives and managers often fulfill the mentor role, but when management roles are largely occupied by men, it becomes necessary for women to have mentors that show them these roles are open to them as well.

A 2018 study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that sponsorship and mentorship programs increase the percentage of women who advance and intend to stay (72 percent and 61 percent, respectively) with the company.

COVID-19 accelerator: Session activity on LinkedIn grew 26 percent during COVID's first quarter. Use your network to connect women with potential mentors and encourage your managers to do the same. Additionally, many meetpps and other groups have moved online; provide lists to women employees and encourage them to join a relevant group.

Chart the Path to Leadership

A recent IBM study found that men occupy approximately 82 percent of the most influential roles in today's organizations. For men, paths to leadership are typically well-known because they are surrounded by colleagues and managers who have successfully navigated them. To support women lacking such a mirror, companies should define their paths to leadership clearly, with established milestones, examples, and assessment resources.

COVID-19 accelerator: Performance management platforms, such as FifteenFive, Leapsome, or Lattice, have become an increasingly important way to provide milestones, objectives, and assessments within a largely remote working environment. Use your platform to create defined paths to achievement for women and check-in regularly to support progress.

A Final Word

COVID-19 offers us a chance to accelerate paths for promoting women leaders and growing the diversity of our organizations. How successful we are will depend on how well we raise awareness about diversity goals, develop purposeful strategies for advancing women of color, and demonstrate the economic benefits of diversity to every employee. Acceleration will happen when everyone from the executive team to new hires embrace the importance of diverse leadership, its particular benefits during any time of crisis, and agree on becoming part of the solution. I've seen women leaders accomplish a great deal during the first half of 2020 and look forward to more.

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