3 Ways Women Can Navigate the Organizational System

3 Ways Women Can Navigate the Organizational System

By Audrey McGuckin, CEO, WOTW - 

Corporate systems. Organizational systems. They are flawed. That’s why Women On Their Way (WOTW) is grounded in identifying and fixing those systems. In other words, making the invisible, visible. Yet, that’s not the full story, our program is also grounded in how to support women navigate the system they operate within.

Systems have structures, mindsets, cultures that keep women from growing. When women see and understand those structures and learn how to navigate the organizational system it propels their growth and stops them from stubbing their toe. I have spent more than three decades as a leadership expert cultivating talent, reimagining leadership, and transforming culture. Throughout my career I've seen people point fingers at the women, blame the men, and throw money at programs designed to ‘fix the women.’ Yet not one of those approaches has moved the needle or solved the problem. 

Why is that? More of the same leadership programming and DEI investment does not create the change that’s needed. Today’s proactive talent strategies involve resetting individual mindsets through skill building. It’s about addressing the system while giving women the tools they need to navigate their advancement to higher levels of organizational leadership. That’s what women and organizations need to invest in.

At the organizational rate level, WOTW helps identify where the system is broken. It allows the organization to pinpoint where they need to invest in change and make fast and bold moves.

By addressing often invisible, unspoken or unconscious barriers that get in the way of women's advancement and staying power, companies can change their systems, leapfrog and advance gender equity.

At the individual level, WOTW helps women see the system empowering them to navigate it better, smarter, and more strategically. It’s part of our year-long Navigator journey, where we spend 12 months helping women hone the navigation skills they need.

Here are the top 3 strategies I share with women during the Navigator journey:

 1. Stop Vague Feedback 

One of the greatest systemic problems is that most women are given vague feedback. As a woman leader you can create an environment with your coworkers and managers where you welcome and receive very specific feedback. Frank feedback that gives you the opportunity to hit the mark next time. 

 Here’s how:

  • Lay the Ground Rules - One of the reasons women  get vague feedback is that managers are scared. They want to be careful with what they say and how they say it. Approach your managers and tell them you want regular feedback. Be specific by saying “How can I improve by 20%?” Let them know you are open to all types of feedback to improve your performance. Take their feedback, say thank you,  and apply it to your work. 
  • Set up a feedback cadence - Don’t wait until your end-of-year review. Ask for feedback on a monthly or quarterly basis so you can regularly improve. Schedule feedback meetings and hold your managers accountable. Ask questions if the feedback seems general and ask them to get more specific. Not only does it show them that you mean business, but it builds trust that you are always striving to improve. 

 2. Find a Sponsor, Not a Mentor

Mentorship and sponsorship are two different things. While many companies will develop mentorship programs as a way to fill a gap in their system, this never works. Why? Because mentors are focussed on providing support, sponsors are focussed on providing connections for higher-profile opportunities. 

Sponsorship is a large part of navigating “the system,” a corporate system that most women are never taught to take advantage of.  When I bring this up to leaders (both men and women), most have never thought about women and how they handle sponsorship. Even men, who have more of a propensity to leverage networks, have an ‘aha moment’ when they understand sponsorship has played a role in their careers. Most all realize they have never sponsored a woman executive. 

I vividly remember one of my own biggest career transitions. I was moving from Scotland to the US 20 years ago. I was a junior team member and deeply concerned about how I would navigate the US Headquarters. I approached the head of the Business Development team and asked him for help. He was incredibly generous in providing insights, perspective and practical guidance. We grabbed a piece of paper, he scratched out the org chart and guided me through how to approach each of the leaders on that chart. He called at least 3 of the leaders on the org chart and paved the way for me.

I made the transition across the Atlantic and was ready with a blueprint and game plan based on which relationships I had to build and leverage. I still use the same approach to this day when I’m coaching women leaders.

I didn’t know it at the time but he was sponsoring me, not mentoring me in a way allowed me to make the transition.

A sponsor will use influence and their networks to connect you to higher profile opportunities. They give you access to their network and are personally invested in your upward movement. They are champions for specific high visibility projects and they can drive your career vision. Sponsorship is more about your career than just your job. So identify your sponsors wisely and work to leverage those relationships.

As a woman, where do you start to identify? 

A good place to start is by leveraging your own network and relationships. Get a piece of paper and write down who you are connected with, who they know and can connect you with, and who you have the highest affinity with. Once you’ve identified potential sponsors, reach out to them. Don’t be shy! I have found that people in my network rarely say no to an honest ask. Share with them your vision, your passion, your commitment to your development. Ask them to champion you when you’re not in the room.

Keep in mind that sponsorships are relationships built over time and they are symbiotic relationships. A sponsor can drive career vision for you, poke holes in your career plan, suggest things to shoot for as well. In turn, consider how YOU can add value to what THEY do. Learn about their business. Develop a relationship built on trust with your sponsor.Make the relationship a two-way street. 

On a personal level, I sponsor several women. What this means for me is that I’ll challenge them on their big dream and their next bold moves. I open my network and give these women access to it. My network is mostly male CEOs and there’s value in giving women access to these high-level leaders. I have learned this first hand and that’s why I’m so passionate about changing the world we live in and teaching other women. This issue of sponsorship vs. mentorship is a significant part of our year-long WOTW Navigator program. 

Think about the shifts you need to make from relationships that are more mentor to sponsors. Be aware and connect with people who have reach and influence in an organization. 

In one of my conversations with a woman leader who recently exited from her role shared her reflections. She said one mistake I made was I didn’t find a sponsor,  I just didn’t realize it was that important and I didn’t know how to. 

3. Avoid The Glass Cliff  

The glass cliff is a trend where women are elevated to positions of power without being set up for success or they are given roles where there is a high chance they can’t be successful. Many women are put in precarious positions that set them up for failure. Some companies do this by giving women jobs where they cannot be successful, no matter how hard they try. The pitfalls are enormous. But out of the desire to move up in an organization, women accept these roles, only to fail at them. 

I have a client who was promoted to a high level executive position last year. She was so excited and honored to move up to the Executive Team that she overlooked the vague answers the CEO, COO and CTO gave her when she asked for measurements for success in the proposed role. One executive told her to manage the CEO, the other told her to stay out of his business, the third executive had no idea how to leverage her talents. She struggled for months to get them in alignment and to try to find ways to show value, but the odds were stacked against her. She was eventually let go without any clear feedback or input  on where she failed. Looking back she knows it was a role that had no set objectives and would fail from the beginning. Had she realized that she might have been ok waiting for an executive role more in alignment for success while she stayed in her previous role. 

How can you avoid the glass cliff? 

Be really thoughtful about what you say yes to. When offered new roles, ask for the standards for the role, ask questions around the chances of success, and ask for specific metrics. Be decisive and understand the pitfalls before you agree to anything. And if you need added assistance in this, go to your sponsor and ask them their thoughts on the new role. Ask as many people, as many questions as you can. Be incredibly clear before you say yes. 

If you are interested and want access to tools and methods to navigate your career, reach out to us and set up a 15 minute exploratory call. Our year-long Navigator leadership program starts November 16, 2021. The investment is:

  • $6,900 for Director (Sr. Manager Level)
  • $9,900 for Executive level

You will have the opportunity to go on a journey with other powerful women over the next 12 months, have access to curated content from incredible faculty and learn together with your peers. The Navigator Program is led by experts who help women illuminate and eliminate old ideas, identify personal pain points, and uncover the landmines that are hampering their career progression.



Take your journey to the next step. Learn more or enroll in the program here
Registration closes November 16, 2021

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