Female Leadership: How to Promote Sustainable High Performance
Chloe Walton is an Inclusive Leadership Specialist, Executive Coach and the Founder of Hello2morrow. She helps individuals and organisations become the change needed to create a more inclusive future.
At the height of her career 10 years ago, Chloe realised there wasn’t a sustainable leadership solution that addressed both sides of the gender (in)equality equation: the female leaders and the system they are part of. This passion and frustration led her to change her path and specialise in designing bespoke and experiential leadership programs through Hello2morrow to help female leaders strengthen their confidence and for organisations to develop a truly inclusive work culture.
Today, Hello2morrow strives to inspire leaders to see beyond present barriers and help people make meaningful connections with each other and through their own experiences to stimulate positive change and promote gender equality.
Tell us about your story and what brought you to where you are today.
Parts of my story share similarities with many female leaders who have struggled through a male-dominated system – having to choose between career success and family priorities and trying to establish what “success” really means to me.
I was always good at maths at school. After university, I qualified as an accountant with the big 4. My career took flight when I moved into a senior finance leadership role in an FTSE 100 company. In 2005, I chose to follow the next path and started a family of two gorgeous boys.
But coming back from maternity leave was destabilising. The change in attitude towards me as a senior female leader and a mother was obvious. I felt conflicted with the language that dictated what success should look like for a high performer. It was a subtle, almost unspoken language. But it was there, and other people’s definition of success began taking over my life direction. “Oh leaving early….(it was 5.30 pm)”, “Enjoy your day off ….(when working part-time)” and it went on.
Needless to say, I left, believing that I couldn’t continue up the career ladder, I moved on to a new senior leadership role at an exciting technology and data start-up. I was thrilled to work with an innovative and energetic team of young people. But again the poor culture at the C-suit level dragged the organisation down to a slow decline and eroded my confidence. The inflexible structure, designed for men, was breaking me from the inside. I was constantly exhausted and struggled to balance motherhood and the expectation of what my role entailed.
I also knew I was paid less, working as many hours, and bringing in as much business. But my efforts all went unnoticed. Thinking I had no other options, I resigned without a job lined up. I didn’t speak about it to anyone thinking I had failed, and couldn’t function. At the time, I had lost my confidence and thought that women couldn’t have both a family and a successful career.
It wasn’t until January 2015 that my coach – who was instrumental in helping me get to where I am today – helped me figure out who I was and what I wanted in life. It was during this time that I realised how deeply rooted my struggles were in a system that wasn’t built to help women succeed. It became my purpose to help other women struggling in a male-dominated workplace.
Out of this experience, I was able to develop my self-awareness and regain my confidence. I became drawn to how human behaviour works, especially in cognitive diversity and diversity of thought. This interest turned into a passion, which led me to develop my coaching service and inclusive leadership programs at Hello2morrow.
Everything that I bring into Hello2morrow comes from a place of vulnerability and 25 years of learning through my lived experience. I’m proud of how far I’ve come, having worked through my darkest moments and discovering my true values, passion and life goals. I hope my story can inspire other women to tell their stories with pride.
What is the mission of Hello2morrow?
At Hello2morrow, we are passionate about empowering female leaders and developing inclusive cultures for organisations. We work on both sides of the gender equation and offer bespoke coaching and inclusive leadership programs to help organisations address gender imbalances and create an inclusive work culture for all women to thrive with confidence.
At the core of our pioneering programmes stems our curiosity about human behaviour. We incorporate the principles of reverse mentoring, growth mindset and values-led leadership to help individuals and organisations identify different ways to connect with each other and unlock new ways of thinking. The results deliver both inclusive leaders and improved business decision-making.
We also address issues related to unconscious bias through the experiential nature of our programs, which succeeds in trust and collaboration. This offers participants an inclusive space to highlight important issues about gender, race, ethnicity and foster curiosity positively.
Crafting important industry conversations is also an essential part of our work as we move towards a diverse and inclusive future where female leaders can flourish with purpose, and inclusive and authentic leaders can thrive through the power of human connection.
In your opinion, how can we nurture female leaders?
Nurturing female leaders is about giving them the right structure and support that they need to become the best versions of themselves and succeed in their roles as leaders. Instead of treating women like they need rescuing or fixing, they need to be given the same opportunities as everyone else to thrive.
As one of my clients says, “I’m not an activist. I’m just being honest.” Having conversations about diversity and inclusion and gender equality must be conducted with honesty and respect for everyone at the table. The truth needs to be shared and feedback needs to be given – otherwise, nothing changes.
Bringing women into the conversation, regardless of their role or grade, is necessary to help an organisation articulate what is actually needed in its inclusion strategy. The people at the top often make the poorest assumptions about what is needed. Including all perspectives and valuing everyone’s opinions can help decision-makers make the right decisions and initiate the right (often simple) adjustments.
What’s more, encouraging a culture of allyship between women is a great way for them to inspire and empower each other as they progress in their careers. It’s not about shining a light on one woman’s success. It’s about emphasising that there’s room for all women to grow and progress.
Women also need a trusted source of advice to impart experience and support to help them find their voice. This can be a role model, mentor, coach or sponsor within or outside of the organisation. But it is really important that this is someone that ‘looks’ like them or that they can aspire to be.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it!
However, what happens when you can’t find female role models in your organisation especially role models of the minority groups? This indicates there’s a lack of normalisation for senior female leaders. What does it look like to lead in this organisation if you are female??? When there’s no one to role model behaviours, we end up thinking that we need to replicate more male behaviours. This in turn then feels inauthentic for many women and drains their energy, which can lead to a lack of confidence and imposter syndrome and they leave – and so the balance never improves.
That’s why having equal access to the right advice, such as a mentorship program available to all female employees, or reverse mentoring to all males, can help women grow in an inclusive environment. Such programs can also empower women to become mentors and encourage aspiring female leaders to work on their career progression.
Women are essential to the success of any business. We’ve repeatedly seen how organisations perform much better when they leverage diversity at all levels.
What are the common challenges that women face and need help with?
Having coached hundreds of women and supported various organisations around the world, many of my clients often start the conversation with “I’m unhappy”, “I’m exhausted/ burnt out” or “I’ve lost my direction”. They think they are isolated in their thoughts and challenges and need to be “fixed”. But none of that is true. We just need to have the right support system that can empower us define our own success, be who we want to be and do it with confidence.
That’s why I embrace all my clients’ thoughts as I support them throughout my coaching sessions. Fundamentally, we have the answers within ourselves. It’s my role to offer an inclusive space for my clients to be intentional about exploring and identifying their values and strengths, how they define success, and what is blocking them from achieving their goals.
Supporting my clients focus on what to say “yes” to and when to say “no”, allows them to develop their authentic leadership capabilities and stand in their story, their strengths, their development areas and aspirations with confidence and pride.
Confronting these challenges takes time and dedication. There’s also an important role that the right psychometric analysis plays in understanding themselves. But embarking on this discovery journey together with my clients can help them break down the isolation barrier as they understand how they can lead their life in an authentic way.
What’s your advice for senior leaders who want to build more sustainable and inclusive leadership positions?
Women are essential to the success of any business. We’ve repeatedly seen how organisations perform much better when they leverage diversity at all levels. In fact, a McKinsey study, published in 2018, shows that “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to outperform on value creation compared to industry peers”.
But we’re still stuck on only nurturing female leaders. This is only one side of the imbalance. In actuality, it’s mission-critical for an organisation to nurture, build and develop the right environment for women to feel supported to grow and thrive alongside the development of nurturing female leaders. It’s a dual track that lets organisations truly access the full potential of aspiring and experienced female leaders.
So, who is responsible to drive this change? Everyone! This isn’t the responsibility of just one department or role. We all have a responsibility to make informed business decisions. We need to take accountability and action towards a more inclusive world.
Additionally, language plays a critical role in establishing an inclusive work culture because it’s an essential part of how we communicate with each other. If we talk about female leadership as an onerous task to achieve certain targets or a box-ticking exercise, then the actions and treatment of female leaders will follow that narrative. Our language needs to change to how invaluable the inclusion of female leaders is and celebrate their success equally.
As female employees are more likely to experience belittling and microaggression, such as having their judgment questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior, all leaders need to keep their communication channels open throughout the organisation, they need to stay curious, ask questions and listen to the responses. This way, the organisation can start to build psychological safety to enable the honest feedback to be presented – this enables change.
One way that can help facilitate these conversations is through external involvement like our reverse mentoring program. Reverse mentoring is a proven way that connects female employees with senior leaders on a 1-2-1 basis to discuss openly their challenges and share their perspectives and experiences at the organisation. These conversations are conducted in a safe and inclusive environment so that all participants can work towards building long-term trust and connection.
We also structure the program specifically to help male colleagues understand the statistics and research and allow them to become allies for gender equality. This includes bringing in data and case studies for them to assess their communication preferences and raise awareness of harmful unconscious bias towards women at work. We build allies.
Senior leaders that have joined our programs consistently report an improved understanding of what’s actually happening at their organisation. They also gained more enlightening perspectives that change their assumptions about their work culture. These experiences cannot be gained simply from their standpoint.
But more importantly, young women are even more ambitious and place more significance on working for fair, supportive and inclusive organisations. They’re watching senior women leave for better opportunities and are prepared to do the same. If companies don’t act now, they can risk losing, not only their current female leaders but also the next generation of talent.
What is your favourite thing about your job?
Now that I am living with purpose, it doesn’t feel like a job. Travelling around the world with my “job”, I value the extensive insight I’m gaining from encountering various corporate cultures and their leadership journeys. I get to explore different organisational cultures and acquire broad insights into many businesses and see how they’re working towards inclusive leadership. I’ve also had the chance to identify local themes in a global context, meet incredible people and watch them become themselves in an authentic way.
What I do also brings all sorts of challenges. It’s fascinating to see who’s talking a good game but they are only paying lip service. Coming in as a trusted advisor, I can then challenge their system and bring in new views with positivity.
But what really drives my passion for what I do is that I can stimulate real positive change every day. I cherish all the responses I get from participants after attending my programmes for the impact I’ve made on them and their businesses.
Each person I coach and each leader that has participated in my programs have made a conscious effort to shift how they view themselves and the inequality around them. These people are like pebbles in a pool, taking their learnings, reflections and confidence and rippling an unstoppable effect towards openness, honesty and deep curiosity to do better, to be better.
I see this effect as we shift towards a brave new world where people can find their own success by their very own measures and live to their highest potential. This world will see leaders drawing flexible boundaries and shaping structures to secure inclusive environments for growth and creativity for all genders.