There’s a lot of talk about the pipeline — that magical conveyer belt that calls a select few up toward the top of organizations. The pipeline is critically important for women, who in most organizations are notably absent from it. This underrepresentation of eligible females is often cited as the excuse for everything from pay inequity and the shortage of women in executive education programs to the miserable paucity of women in top decision-making roles.
And so it benefits females to understand this important concept and apply it to their own strategic career planning. One good resource is The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter and James Noel, all high-powered consultants/coaches.
Charan and his colleagues describe six “leadership passages,” or increasingly complex roles that everyone — male and female — must learn to handle in order to rise to the top. Look at this hierarchy of passages to see where you are ready to perform now and where you might eventually like to be:
From managing self to managing others
Of course this is where it all begins, when you’re picked from the crowd of individual contributors as a terrific performer and offered opportunities to supervise, direct, and evaluate others as a front-line manager. Skills at this level have to do with assigning work, as well as motivating and coaching employees. The shift here is from doing work yourself to arranging to have it done effectively by others.
From managing others to managing managers
Things get more complex here, as you must decide whether to do things your way or help others work better in their own ways. When people flunk passage two, it’s usually because they can’t learn to delegate tasks and coordinate activities without devaluing the people who report to them. Women often seem to be naturals here, because their emotional switchboard roles and parenting experiences have prepared them for chunking down complex goals into manageable tasks.
From managing managers to functional managers
The new skill here is learning to manage people several layers down, which means developing even more effective communications skills. You’ll also need to understand and value fields other than your own.
From functional manager to managing a business
The plot thickens even more at this passage, as stellar relationship management skills are required to coach and evaluate many levels down to be sure functional leaders are planning and delegating skillfully. At passage four, managers have to bring out the best — in terms of innovation and productivity — in the functional leaders working below them.
From managing a business to managing a group of businesses
The manager of a group of businesses needs to get beyond the need for direct credit and concentrate on helping business heads to be effective. Allocating capital, developing new businesses, assembling the right mix of companies in their portfolio and knowing how to develop the right core capabilities are among the duties keeping leaders awake at night as they move through the fifth passage.
From managing a group of businesses to managing an enterprise
This is the CEO of a large company, although in smaller organizations, the CEO functions at level four or five. At the top, key skills are inspiring workers down through the bottom of the organization and connecting effectively with constituencies outside the organization. A CEO is also expected to hire and manage great talent, while knowing that most of those hired would love to take his job.
Few of us work beyond level four; the numbers are few, and the atmosphere is rarified at four and above. Yet if women are to take their rightful places in those roles, now is the time to start readying themselves. Reading Charan’s book is a good start, followed by strategic networking, effective coaching, and top-drawer executive education programs.
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