Mary Lea McAnally
Mary Lea McAnally

Women have always been capable of assuming leadership roles in public service, but they have not always been qualified to lead, sometimes lacking the training, skills and experiences necessary to lead. So said Catherine “Kiki” McLean at The Women’s Leadership Initiative event hosted by Texas A&M’s Mays Business School in Houston on Jan. 15. McLean explored this important distinction in her remarks entitled “Making It in a Man’s World — A View from Inside the Beltway.”

It seems that at least once a year — usually when the latest statistics are released reaffirming the vast discrepancy between the percent of women in the workforce and the percent of women in corporate leadership positions — the voices of an indignant few raise the topic of women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions. But just as quickly, the subject retreats underground for a prolonged period of chilly status quo, like Punxsutawney Phil after spying a glimmer of sunshine. It bears mentioning that earlier this month, Catalyst reported yet another year of essentially no growth for women in corporate leadership positions. According to the nonprofit focused on women and business, women held 16.9% of board seats and 14.3% of executive officer positions in 2013 compared to 16.6% and 14.6% in 2012, respectively. As a faculty member and senior administrator at a business school whose mission is to create knowledge and develop ethical leaders for a global society, I include myself among the indignant.

I listened intently as McLean traced the roots of her professional success back to a childhood in which she was raised by a single father who never informed her that there were dreams in life she could not pursue. Later in life, two older brothers working in Washington, D.C., helped the San Antonio native embark upon a career in national politics, where she actively participates in bringing about the dawn of a new age of women in leadership. As the counsel for Porter Novelli’s global public affairs practice and a key strategist for six U.S. Presidential campaigns, including serving as senior advisor to the 2008 “Hillary Clinton for President” campaign, McLean knows a thing or two about women in leadership. So when she pointed to the subtle but important distinction between women’s capabilities and their qualifications, I sat up and took note. I recognized McLean’s words as a clarion call to educators around the country, spurring us to redouble our efforts to close the gap between capability and qualification.

A number of business schools have already taken significant and innovative strides toward that end. These include Simmons School of Management’s 16-month MBA program designed specifically for women’s career and leadership success, Stanford’s weeklong executive education course designed to help women achieve their personal and professional goals, and a new class offered by Harvard Business School called “How star women succeed: leading effective careers and organizations.”

Mays Business School has joined the effort. Our multi-faceted approach to developing qualified women leaders incorporates what McLean referred to in her remarks as “leading out.” The traditional definition of a leader is someone in a formal position with the authority to manage and/or control a group of subordinates. More recently, leadership has come to be recognized as a dynamic process in which an individual exerts influence over others to achieve a desired goal. Leading out reflects this broader understanding of leadership. Simply put, leading out means influencing peers within or outside your organization as well as colleagues up and down your organizational chain of command. (Several years ago, the notion of “leading up,” or managing your manager, came into vogue. This is an important facet of leading out.) From my vantage point as an educator, the idea of leading out is central to preparing qualified women for leadership roles in all walks of life.

Mays’ four-pronged approach to developing female leaders starts with self-reflection as an essential leadership practice. Our female MBA students engage in this activity through a series of self-assessments that help them understand their strengths and develop greater emotional intelligence. We teach our women how to leverage their self-knowledge to become more effective and efficient at influencing. Second, required classes focus on leadership, teamwork, communications and problem-solving skills because these are essential to influencing others. Third, our women students apply their leadership skills and knowledge through high-impact, hands-on learning experiences outside the classroom. These include leading crisis management efforts at the renowned Disaster City® complex in College Station, Texas, analyzing the market and financial viability of early-stage ventures, or participating at national case competitions. Two of our female MBAs recently applied their skills, training and experiences to help lead a four-person team to first place in the team competition at the 7th Annual National MBA Case Competition in Ethical Leadership at Baylor University, while garnering individual prizes for the Best Presenter and the Best Q&A.

We augment these three educational components with the Women’s Leadership Initiative, a series of interactive women-only seminars that help our female students make valuable professional connections while learning firsthand from successful female leaders. In our first such event last fall, Rebecca Cooke, a strategy consultant and executive coach, discussed the importance of being “gender bilingual.” This ability does not entail learning to talk like a man but rather learning to understand and influence men in a manner that is authentic from a female perspective. Earlier this month at our second event, McLean discussed the important role that leading out can play in national politics, particularly when it comes to influencing lobbyists, regulators and other power-brokers. As one of the co-founders of the No Labels movement in Washington, D.C., she is currently working to empower partisan politicians to start talking to each other across the divides—in hopes of achieving common goals. In two more events this year, Cooke will discuss how women can exercise power and influence through one-on-one conversations, emails and meetings (April 5th in Houston) as well as explore how women define their roles both deliberately and unintentionally (September 2014). Through these events, our female students have the chance to hear amazing stories from female role models who have been in the leadership trenches and lived to tell about the experience.

While there is no simple remedy or single solution to closing the gap between women’s leadership capabilities and their qualifications to lead, there are innovative educational approaches and signs of success all around us. In her closing remarks, McLean proclaimed 2014 as an inflection point in the evolution of women in leadership. The actions we take today will ensure that our children grow up in an era when women are viewed as qualified candidates for the highest political, civic and corporate leadership positions in the land.

About Mays Business School

Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School educates more than 5,000 undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students in accounting, finance, management, management information systems, marketing and supply chain management. Mays consistently ranks among the top public business schools in the country for its undergraduate and MBA programs, and for faculty research. The mission of Mays Business School is creating knowledge and developing ethical leaders for a global society.