Snapshot: Becoming Visible: Building Leadership Presence to Reach the Next Level
By Corinne Garcia February 2012
Brigid Moynahan has been coaching women leaders for more than 24 years, focusing on an unconventional approach to leadership that has less to do with competence and everything to do with confidence. Through The Next Level, Inc., which she founded in 1986, Brigid has designed and led more than 800 corporate programs on mentoring, coaching, team building, diversity and leadership for Fortune 500 companies worldwide, with the goal of helping women move up from mid-level management to high level positions.
Womanetics: How did you develop and cultivate your own leadership skills, before training other women?
Moynahan: My Dad was a writer and literary critic and my mom was an architect. This meant their gender roles were quite unusual, in some ways even reversed, and I wasn’t raised with traditional notions about gender and leadership. I did not internalize the message many of my peers received which was to defer to others, especially those in authority. Instead, my parents taught me to speak up, and express my opinion. I then trained as an actress and worked in the business world writing, marketing and coaching folks on successful presentations. All these experiences taught me essential skills I could pass along to leaders.
Womanetics: How did this evolve into The Next Level, Inc.?
Moynahan: I began working on issues of gender and leadership as an executive coach at AT&T Bell Laboratories more than 20 years ago. Female members of the technical staff wanted help getting heard and valued in their work teams. A major focus of The Next Level continues to be helping talented women overcome the barriers holding them back.
Womanetics: What do you see as the major issue for women leaders today?
Moynahan: The issue continues to be that women are so poorly represented as you move up the pyramid. CEO’s used to say the problem was the pipeline, but that’s a myth. There are actually more women than men entering professions these days. The real issue is that women’s leadership is being overlooked. The problem is perception rather than competence. We still aren’t used to seeing women at senior levels, and those who are there are tested more and sponsored less.
Women don’t need to be better at job performance; I have almost never seen an issue be a matter of performance. The focus of our executive development programs isn’t on making women better at their jobs. Instead it’s on helping them make their leadership visible, expanding their networks, and articulating their value proposition so others see them as the leaders they are.
Womanetics: What kinds of misperceptions and challenges hold women back as leaders?
Moynahan: We trust what we know and what’s similar to us. Since men are the folks at the top of the corporation, they’re more likely to recognize leadership in people who look like them. If someone looks different, and this applies to minorities as well as women in organizations, I’m going to keep testing and doubting that person. White men are not tested as much or doubted as much. And when you’re doubted, you start to doubt yourself.
Another problem is that women don’t ask for things; we have been socialized not to ask, but to wait to be chosen. Men ask and women wait. This leads to extraordinary disparities in reward and recognition. We wonder why women make less money, and not asking is a huge part of that.
Womanetics: Can you explain the importance of leadership presence?
Moynahan: There’s a quote from Plato: ‘A thing is not visible because it is seen; a thing is seen because it is visible.’ You can be super skilled and working really hard, but unless you position yourself as a leader, it’s likely you’ll be overlooked.
Womanetics: What are some tips for creating more of a presence?
Moynahan: First realize what you bring to the table. Give yourself a pep talk, make a file that reminds you of all the good things you’ve done. It’s quite natural to forget things we’ve accomplished. Women are very hard on themselves. Make yourself your own fan club, remembering your achievements and your value.
Next communicate your accomplishments to the people who matter. Don’t assume your work will speak for itself. People are much too busy to stop to find out what you’ve been doing—you need to let them know yourself. A lot of women are uncomfortable with this because they don’t want to be seen as bragging. We need to reframe how we think about this. Instead, think of it as an offer you’re making—this is my contribution, what I can do for you. Be really positive, excited and proud about your contribution. There’s a difference between ‘you should give this to me,’ and ‘I want to contribute in this way.’ Be inspired about what you have to give.
Also, pay attention to the signals you are giving off. What is your body language saying about you? What message are you sending with your voice and intonation? Do you sound like a girl or a woman of influence? There’s an unspoken conversation about power in every meeting you attend. Learn to handle interactions with a combination of confidence and grace, so you can be yourself but also project a more powerful presence.
Womanetics: What other tips would you give female leaders?
Moynahan: Women are great at connecting with other people. We need to use this gift to cultivate relationships that help us strengthen our contribution while moving ahead. Connect with people who will support and recognize you, while distancing yourselves from those who are blocking you.
Another tip is to realize that business as a trading game. To be included as a player you need to start trading information, expertise and influence. Men’s relationships are based upon this sort of casual exchange, so they are often more comfortable reaching out to ask for what they want and offering something in exchange. If you just put your head down and work hard, you’re missing out on a key part of what makes leaders successful.
Use your network to cultivate mentors who may one day be your sponsor. Make sure you stay in touch with the folks who have helped you and share what you are learning. In this way your success starts to feel like their success too. The latest research on barriers to women’s advancement focuses on lack of sponsorship. Keep your eye on the prize, steadily cultivating allies who will be there supporting you for career building assignments or that next promotion.
Womanetics: How have organizations changed since you started training more than 25 years ago?
Moynahan: Organizations are increasingly chaotic and disconnected. As companies keep reorganizing, people are being charged with more and more people underneath them. You have to be really well networked across an organization to survive. If you’re not making yourself visible, you could lose your job. And just in case that does happen, it’s just as important to be well networked outside the company as well.
When companies start downsizing and reorganizing, women tend to put their heads down and work even harder to care for their teams and meet performance goals. They’ll say they’re ‘too busy’ to think about what’s next. Meanwhile their male colleagues are putting out feelers, keeping their resumes up to date and asking for that next assignment.
The leaders we need today combine the best of both genders. They are people who care for their teams and keep them engaged and cultivate influence and exposure. That’s a tall order.
Womanetics: Can you tell me about some of the specialized programs you offer women leaders?
Moynahan: We have a glass ceiling initiative called The Rutgers Executive Leadership Program for Women that offers intensive development to selected women nominated from companies across the Fortune 500. The program is limited to only 24 participants and includes workshops at the Rutgers Institute for Women’s Leadership, peer mentoring circles and individualized sessions with an executive coach. We guide candidates in defining their essential contribution, communicating it with influence and presence, expanding networks, cultivating strategic alliances, and asking for what they want. After 13 years this program has had a significant impact. Our last survey indicated that 1/3 of our candidates have gone on to greatly expanded roles despite cutbacks.
Another program we’re proud of is the peer-mentoring practice we call Success Circles®. Members of Success Circles learn a coaching methodology that allows them to hone their leadership skills while mentoring one another on pressing work concerns. When we launched 150 high potential women into Success Circles at a leading pharmaceutical company recently, 58 percent were promoted after six months. Success Circles are so effective that companies are adopting them for use with men as well as women. Participants say it improves strategic thinking, helps break down silos, increases idea generation and problem solving and helps folks feel more engaged and accountable.
Womanetics: What is one thing that makes your training unique?
Moynahan: We get our best results by putting candidates together and teaching them to encourage one another. Encouragement is defined in two ways. It literally means to put courage into someone, and it also means to bring something out in someone. So we teach people how to recognize each other’s strengths and make them brave. When you do this, you become a great leader of people. So our candidates become better leaders as they help each other succeed.
Womanetics: What makes the leadership training at The Next Level, Inc. cutting-edge?
Moynahan: We’re continuously evolving. Our team includes not only management consultants but professional actors, storytellers, and improvisers. Actor training is a wonderful system for training leaders to engage others, project powerful presence, speak and move with greater impact and authority. When you act the part, you become the part.
Our newest innovation is using current findings from brain research to help leaders stay resourceful while managing ever increasing demand and stress.
Womanetics: How can women use leadership skills in other areas of their lives, aside from work?
Moynahan: A lot of women leaders feel torn between the demands of home and work. As a result, they work even harder and neglect themselves. It’s important in all areas of life to recognize your limits and notice where you’re putting your attention. Are you at work feeling guilty that you are not with your kids? Or are you at home letting work invade your private life?
All leaders need to become more realistic about what they can do when. Notice where you are putting your attention and stop beating yourself up for choices you are making. Successful women leaders succeed by staying flexible, staying organized and remembering to choose. Sometimes in order to say yes to kids, we have to say no to the cell phone. Doing it all is doing it all badly. There are times that I’d like to be there for my kids, times when I choose that I will not compromise. It all comes back to valuing yourself.