Why Women Get Stuck As Midlevel Managers

VoiceAmerica's "Out of the Comfort Zone" host Wanda Wallace is also the president and CEO of Leadership Forum Inc.

On her radio show, “Out of the Comfort Zone,” Wanda Wallace discusses the challenges subject-matter experts face when it comes to progressing in their careers.

While men and women alike fall into this trap, Wallace says women in particular are prone to embrace what they know, failing to take the risks necessary to advance past midlevel positions.

Below are edited excerpts from Wallace’s interview with Diversity Executive magazine.

Why do women often get stuck as midlevel managers?

Multiple factors conspire to keep women in midlevel positions. First, women prefer to let their work speak for itself, which means women gravitate towards roles that rely on their ability to execute, where they know the details and can use their expertise. Thus, they end up in “do-er” positions, not “strategist” positions. As a result, they remain highly valued members of the team but aren’t seen as leaders. Without leadership roles, they aren’t credible candidates for top-level roles. It often starts early in women’s careers.

Second, the smartest thing for any aspiring manager to do (male or female) is to find a bright, dedicated, hard-working executor who will get things done. Once he finds that person, he tends to hang on to him/her and to use him/her to get tough tasks completed. These are often thankless jobs from everyone except the manager. Managers are complicit in helping women get out of these roles.

Third, if a woman isn’t asking for opportunities to take leadership roles, managers can let the situation stand as is. It’s also true that women don’t ask often enough — relative to male peers — for new opportunities.

Fourth, women are reluctant to take risks — higher-level roles require willingness to take appropriate risk along with the ability to live with mistakes. Fifth, women navigate (and are navigated) towards functional roles rather than P&L [Profit and Loss] or large client roles. Functional roles without substantive line experience make anyone a less likely candidate for top positions.

How can having subject matter expertise hold women back in their careers?

Having subject-matter expertise doesn’t by itself hold women back — not moving outside the expertise does. Subject-matter experts are expected to know all the details, to be right, to have done all the work (or have teams that have done so) in order to determine the best course of action. The network comes from the expertise, the confidence comes from knowing more than others on the subject matter, and the credibility comes from the expertise.

To take a larger role, however, you eventually have to lead people who know far more about an area than you can or ever will know. Those situations require a whole new way of leading — one that requires projecting confidence, inspiring, setting a vision and bringing a broad range of people with you. When the organization sees anyone, women included, who hasn’t shown the ability to lead without expertise, the organization does not tend to give those people opportunities to lead at a larger scale or from a broader scope. Note that for even top functional roles, organizations typically want someone who has a broad perspective not just a functionally trained individual.

What advice do you have for women and subject-matter experts who want to advance in their careers?

There are a number of things any individual can do to learn to lead where they are not the expert.

Find opportunities to lead where you are not the expert. These opportunities often come from activities outside the day job — things like recruiting, charity work and projects or task forces. Use these to both learn and showcase your ability to lead without being the expert.

Learn to rely on people beneath you — get comfortable not being in control of all the details.

Get comfortable taking calculated risks and not having to be perfect on everything.

Show your ability to think and act strategically and in areas that are not totally under your control.

Do not demonstrate that you expect to be right all the time. Learn to live with not being right or letting other people be right. When a sponsor, valued mentor or other senior person whose opinion you respect encourages you to take a role outside of your comfort zone, take it.

How can companies benefit from promoting subject-matter experts to top executive positions?

This is a matter of balance. On the one hand, having expertise at the top table can be valuable, especially when things go wrong. For example, you want your CFO [chief financial officer] and chief risk officer, among others, to have deep expertise. At the same time, you want all members of the top team to have broad exposure to the business so that the decisions that the top team makes are in the best interest of the business as a whole not just driven by the views of the function. Organizations cannot afford to make ill-informed decisions. Equally though, organizations cannot afford to have work/decisions held up because the top team needs time to dig into the details. Even if you have a top team that has deep experts, those experts have to trust their teams to do the details and have to avoid poking too far into the details.