What Got You Here Wont Get You There. Leadership, and Following the Numbers

I recently watched one of those TED talks that helps you see the structural underpinnings that were always there, but invisible to you. Titled, The Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get, it features Susan Colantuono, who founded Leading Women, a consultancy that helps companies close the gender gap.

Colantuono speaks about what she found to be a common experience: Women, who have made it to middle management, who just can’t seem to keep moving up to senior leadership positions.

The problem, is that ‘what got you here won’t get you there.’ There are three components she sees to leadership: 1. Doing great work 2. Engaging others to get the best work from them (good management) 3. Using business and strategic acumen and help the business grow it’s bottom line.

The problem, Colantuono says, is that women are taught to perform on the first two components, and not often taught or mentored on the third…..and the first two components are what allow you to rise in an organization, but the third is absolutely necessary to move to the top.

Business and strategic acumen is so centrally important to senior leadership that Colantuono describes an experience where she polled senior executives on what characteristics were necessary in high potential employees. None spoke explicitly about business and strategic acumen, but when she asked about skills such as understanding the competitive environment and crafting strategy, understanding the financials and responding to them, the executives all said, “That’s a given.”

Yet, Colantuono has found, in women’s performance reviews and mentor relationships, most attention is focused the first two topics and very little on the third. She even relays a story of an executive she worked with who realized that he was currently mentoring a man ‘to learn the business’ and a woman to ‘build confidence’ and didn’t realize he was treating them differently.

So what does it meant to build business and strategic acumen? There’s a lot of components to it but there’s one I specifically want to focus on: Knowing the numbers.

In my research on socially entrepreneurial design firms, I spoke with Tim Love, principal of Utile, a Boston-based architecture and planning firm, and new president of the Boston Society of Architects.

Some of Utile’s competitive advantage, Love believes, is that they really try to understand the numbers. They try to understand the pro formas and the key numbers that define opportunities for the developers they work with, because they help them understand the choices that developer will make. Then the cost per square foot is not just what Utile has to design to, it’s a target linked to a larger context of risk, comparables, and the other factors that make up the larger building and business decision.

The numbers don’t only have to be financial: Identifying key metrics tied to value creation is one of the skills of financial and business acumen. Can you demonstrate that your new strategy led to a lower recidivism rate, or a lower turnover rate, or an increase of x% in word-of-mouth sharing? Why do these factors matter and can they be translated into money saved for the company or taxpayers?

I’m speaking this week at a Harvard Design School January Term course on my research on design business models. The topic: “Getting Down with the Business of Design.” It’s a broad introduction to the business of design by Masako Ikegami and Chris SooHoo with an emphasis on emerging professionals, and there’s a great segment, taught by Ikegami where students get down with spreadsheets and work backwards from a desired salary to what budget project they need to bring in to attain that salary.

Design is about relationships, but it’s also about scale. It’s about proportions and thresholds. It’s not just about A being adjacent to B, but it’s also about how much A per B? If you want to create a feeling of a vista, how big do you need your open area to be in order for it to really get the feeling across? How much water would you need to save from rainfall off of your site to make a cistern worth it?

These are the questions that are underemphasized in today’s liberal arts education, where the principles often matter more than the details, and they, in my experience, were underemphasized in my graduate training (with the exception of a few teachers.) These are the questions that seem to hit young professionals sometimes violently, in their first few years of practice, and they matter because they are how the abstract becomes real.

How much? How long? How many hours? What percentage of the budget? What level priority? Integrating this way of thinking has helped women Colantuono knows move past being stuck and into the next level. My central advice to student’s in the Jterm class this week will be to learn how to identify value and then to make sure they can measure it in numbers as well as in words.