Relationships, IBM’s Secret to Building Strong Female Leaders

Men aren’t from Mars, and women aren’t from Venus, but they are different. IBM’s BRI program capitalizes on those differences and sets women up to successfully transition into senior leadership roles with the company.

Successful ceo businesswoman working with employeesWith globalization, technological advancement, diverse demographics and constant marketplace changes, cross-cultural management becomes vital. Leaders need to demonstrate many different competencies and skills. One of the key skills is the ability to construct effective relationships inside and outside the workplace.

This is equally true for men and women leaders. However, they have different qualities, behavioral preferences and styles of working that can affect their promotion options or their roles as leaders. “We do witness differences in the way working men and women are perceived based on societal norms,” said Anita Guha, global diversity and learning as a service portfolio leader, IBM India Limited.

To help its high potential women advance into senior executive roles, IBM has developed leadership development programs like Building Relationships and Influence, or BRI. Since its inception in 2003, BRI’s overall objective is to encourage women to reflect on their personal and professional goals and to take tangible action to drive their careers forward. BRI facilitates this by helping women to develop multiple competencies, including developing business relationships, influencing capabilities, internal confidence and inner competence.

High-potential women leaders who are two to four years away from promotion to an executive role are nominated to the program after demonstrating performance and being rated by their managers as having the potential to become executives. “This selection process is updated annually by the manager in partnership with the business and technical leadership partner as well as the diversity partner,” Guha said.

Previously, the program ran in one business unit. However, since 2008 it has been implemented across the global organization, about 20 times annually. Each workshop consists of 18 participants, and around 350 high potential women leaders are covered each year across the globe.

BRI is a three-day face-to-face workshop. However, participants are required to complete some prework. For example, they’re given reading material to learn and an online module on personal branding. The idea is to have them think about their roles and their expectations as leaders prior to the workshop.

The workshop has a range of small, medium and large interactive, group activities conducted by two or three facilitators — including program alumni — covering topics like feedback, active listening, asking for what you want, preparing an elevator pitch and strategic networking. Participants share their success and reveal some of the challenges they face professionally and personally. One of the sessions is videotaped for participants to observe their own behavior, and use this as self-awareness for further growth. An executive panel also joins participants to share their insights about their respective leadership journeys. The participants and the panel network over dinner.

During the workshop, participants complete a self-assessment using a Hay Influence Strategy Questionnaire. This helps them identify influence strategies they use most and least often. “It is a valuable tool,” Guha explained. “When participants receive personalized feedback on the influence strategies they tend to use most often, we ask them to identify a strategy they do not use so often but that could be helpful in their work and encourage them to practice in a small group activity.”

Participants also create three smaller groups of about six participants each during the workshop. “These groups usually meet once in six weeks after the workshop to provide support as needed and to challenge one another to get out of their comfort zones,” Guha said. “The groups also leverage the insights that they have garnered from BRI learning by discussing and sharing how they are applying it at the workplace.”

Simultaneously, participants become a part of an internal IBM LotusNotes Connections Community, which includes BRI alumni. The community expands participants’ opportunities to network, to find mentors, and to share their success stories. It’s also an informal space to share photos, interesting articles, links to videos, etc.

Besides a robust set of programs for management and leadership development at various stages of a leader’s career journey, a Three E approach — education, exposure and experience — ensures that high potential leaders receive a learning mix that is appropriate to their needs. “The BRI workshop has helped many women in IBM aspire to take on higher leadership roles and thereby contribute to the success of the organization,” Guha said.

BRI participants gain greater self-awareness, manage relationships more effectively and influence with impact. They develop confidence in building relationships with senior client staff, recognize barriers to progress, and learn how to respond accordingly. There is a shift in perceptions on how to systematically build and deploy business networks by mapping the landscape, identifying connectors and managing power relationships.

A 2010 global IBM study measured BRI’s long-term impact — where more than 100 women executives studied were BRI alumni — and showed a high correlation on both promotions to higher bands and retention within BRI alumni. The results revealed that in three years — since 2007 — there was a 20 percent increase in women executive roles. So, it works.

Arva Shikari is an Independent HR and management writer. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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