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Beyond International Women’s Day: Leadership ideas that stick

Helen Bailey

Women leading the way

The topic of the progression of women in organisations is not a new one, and following International Women’s Day 2015, all eyes have been on the ability of major organisations to meet their required ‘quotas’ of 25% female representation. Helen Bailey, from Host Leadership Ltd, talks about the importance of a career path

Quotas are still big news. This focus on numbers has certainly helped to raise awareness of the issue and keep the role of women at the forefront of organisations, but I think it falls far short of the real crux of the matter. It’s all very well meeting targets for getting women into organisations, but there’s a problem keeping them there and engaged in a progressive career path.

In traditionally male dominated sectors, there is a bigger challenge at play than government pressure to meet quotas. There always seems to be much talk about the barriers to women breaking through that tough glass ceiling and the picture portrayed is of women kicking and screaming to get through, but unable to reach the position, respect or recognition that they so clearly strive for. Whilst this may be true for some, there are many more women who have simply retreated from the entire race, after becoming disheartened and discouraged by what they’ve seen happen to others. They’ve lost that drive to push forward and instead, choose to remain in a ‘safer’ position lower down in the organisation. It seems many women have seen what it takes and how it’s done and they don’t want it or like it.

The challenge here is clearly a cultural one. You need to get women to WANT to progress in the first place and this is a much bigger issue than simply facilitating the growth and development of those who already have the passion to strive for it. So what can be done to maximise engagement, motivation, productivity and retention of women? I believe that embracing key concepts such as ‘Leading as a Host’ need to be reignited and taken seriously.

The leader as a host

Leading as a Host is a powerful idea. We all, at some level, know what a host does. We have all invited people round for a meal or a party. We have all been through the balance of preparation and engagements, the joy of introducing people to new friends, the balance of leading, organizing and participating. And we have all been guests too, experiencing the skill of good host (and perhaps the clumsiness of a bad one) firsthand.

Host don’t just engage people by drawing them in, They introduce people to each other, make connections and act positively to bring together synergistic groups – people who can complement and add to each other’s qualities, skills and interested. The art of arranging – whom to put with whom, what might make an interesting group and even thinking about keeping specific participants apart – is a key element of the host’s skill.

Many people have commented to myself and Mark that, while the notion of being a leader seems a very big stretch for them, thinking of themselves as a host is much easier. This gives us a way in to what can be a very sophisticated and flexible leadership position.  In fact, renowned research has found that organisations that focus on engagement with leaders/managers and employees experience greater success than those who simply lead.

There are a couple of questions that revolve around two roles within the host leadership concept which are useful for assessing the current state of your own organisation. These are the Inviter and the Gatekeeper.

When looking at recruitment in particular, ask yourself what are we inviting female workers in to? How attractive and compelling is it? By understanding what you are inviting them to (as the Inviter), you’ll have a better idea of what needs to change to get the results and reactions you want from the right people.

Also, what rituals and routines exist in your organisation that are maybe supporting or working against your female workers? A recent comment for example, was about the ‘laddish’ culture that still exists some places, in this instance it was about seating arrangements in a meeting ‘we’ll sit together, you sit there’. As the Gatekeeper, you might need to close the gate on certain routines and rituals that are not serving that ‘bigger picture’.

What’s clear is that the art of hosting is becoming a crucial aspect of business and is an important skill that needs to be learnt. Understanding the different roles associated with being a Host Leader are important to help tackle some of the core issues that could be stifling female talent.

Helen Bailey is the co-author of ‘Host: Six new roles of engagement for teams, organizations, communities, movements’ (£11.99, Solutions Books, London). For more information visit


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