Lean InAt Davos 2013, there was a lot of buzz about only 17% of the attendees being women.  Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook advises women to “lean in” (her book by the same name is coming out in March).  She advises women to stop second-guessing ourselves and have more confidence in our abilities. I agree. Except that I see a lot of senior level women who are corporate dropouts actually leaning in. They are leaning in to their purpose, their power, and their authenticity.

A lot of senior level women (global general managers, division presidents) have spent their careers leaning into the corporate ladder and now they are leaning into career paths that feel more authentic.  One I spoke to just recently summed it up perfectly. She says she’s very driven, just not very “ambitious”. I got exactly what she meant and it should be a wake-up call for corporate America.

I am a Fortune 500 corporate dropout.  I was successful, had great sponsors (most good men and good leaders) who took chances to promote me. I had P&L responsibility, international assignments, C-suite roles, the kinds of experiences that dream careers are made of.  I decided to leave corporate America after a 20-year career. Does this make me less ambitious?  Yes, less ambitious to climb the corporate ladder, but more driven to pursue a life that is so much more than climbing the corporate ladder.

Are Women Less Ambitious?

There is a perception that women are less ambitious. It’s even corroborated with data.  In an SHL study, men and women leaders were asked “if anything were possible, I would choose to advance to C-level management”. Men were twice as likely as women to say yes (36% vs. 18%). If anything were possible why would only 1 in 5 women want to advance to C-level management, half the level of men? McKinsey interviewed 200 women in top executive positions.  Of them about 41% aspire to the C-suite vs. 59% who didn’t.

We are drowning in data about how greater gender diversity in senior executive teams and on boards delivers bottom line impact to companies.  Well-intentioned companies and CEO’s try hard to retain these women with limited results.  Some of it is the glass ceiling in the organizations (unconscious biases that still exist). Some of it is the glass ceiling in the heads of the women (what Sheryl Sandberg talks about when she asks us to “lean in”).  Yet there is a mid-career cliff where women who have traditionally “leaned in” are leaving corporate America at twice the rate of men. They don’t do it to stay at home. They start companies. They get on boards. They do community work. “What?” you say, “Give up the opportunity to have more money, power, stock options, take the corporate jet to meetings? What are they thinking?”

While individual reasons to leave vary, my suspicion is that our friend Abraham Maslow may be the culprit. In his famous hierarchy of needs, Maslow showed that once our basic needs are fulfilled (physical, safety, social, self-esteem ) we reach for self-actualization – the opportunity to fulfill our authentic leadership potential. You might ask, “Why can’t women self-actualize in corporate America?” You might also ask “Don’t the guys want to self-actualize too”?

What makes women different?

The key factor that drives this difference is the incongruence between what motivates women to become leaders vs. the perceptions of the C-suite.

The data indicates that the C-suite is dominated by those who are driven by power and fear of failure, while women tend to be motivated by constructive working conditions, recognition for their work and achievements, and the opportunity to make an impact.

McKinsey’s study found that “Women often elect to remain in jobs if they derive a deep sense of meaning professionally. More than men, women prize the opportunity to pour their energies into making a difference and working closely with colleagues. Women don’t want to trade that joy for what they fear will be energy-draining meetings and corporate politics at the next management echelon.” According to McKinsey’s interviews with senior level women they want to be led by and aspire to be more authentic and values based than their perception of the C-suite: “When you see it up close, it’s not clean at the top. Motives are not always enterprise related. It’s more about personal agendas”.

Women define success more broadly. It’s not just about the next position in the hierarchy. It’s about contribution to something they personally care about.

Stories of the C-Suite Dropouts

The personal stories I hear of women are very consistent with the data above. One woman leader who ran an $11 billion business in a male-dominated industry opted out because being in the role “just wasn’t much fun anymore”.  She wanted to be intellectually challenged by taking on more board seats, make a broader impact in her community, be able to have more time flexibility to be with her son leaving for college in a couple of years. She may still go back to corporate America but she will do it on her own terms.

Another woman, an executive coaching client, runs a multi-billion dollar division, and doesn’t want her boss’s job.  She believes that she will have to change who she is (to conform to the “politics” of the role) and she’s tired of the constant adapting she has had to do in her 20+ year career.  She’s energized by motivating, leading and growing people across her business and perceives that taking on her boss’s job will take her away from the impact she wants to have and the legacy she wants to leave.

Yet another friend left a senior banking role after 25 years in the business and a great track record of success. She left after a merger gave her the opportunity to “opt-in” for a golden handshake, giving her the financial freedom to leave. The financial freedom wasn’t the driver. It was the enabler. She found her role evolving to a job where she wouldn’t be able to have as much freedom to do what was right for her customers or exercise the strengths she brought to the table. She also saw many of her sponsors leave during the transition, and no longer felt like a valued part of the team that had built the organization. Is she at home taking care of the babies and enjoying cucumber sandwiches? No, she’s now the CEO of a prominent non-profit organization, successfully tackling some of the biggest challenges she’s had in her career – and loving it.

Another recent visible corporate dropout is Shona Brown, SVP at Google. She opted out of the fast track five years ago to do outside board work (she’s on the board of Pepsi) and also to run Google.org.  In Dec 2012 she announced she’s leaving Google to pursue consulting work to advise “social entrepreneurs and regular entrepreneurs on all the challenges of growth. People are the most important thing, integrity is as important as brilliance.”  She’s also engaged to be married.

My Personal Story

My personal story reflects some of the same motivations. I left a 20-year corporate career to start a company that helps leaders realize their transformational potential.  I get to devote 100% of my time to areas where I want to have an impact and leave a legacy.  I am energized by utilizing the skill sets and innate talents that I have, many of which were lying dormant in my corporate roles.  I am energized by the challenges of being an entrepreneur. There are no politics to deal with.  When I want to try something new, I don’t have to do a single power point presentation.  I’m certainly not working fewer hours, but I work more flexibly. I make more of the zumba classes I love and participate in non-profit board work that fuels me, something I never made time for in my corporate career. I am not earning as much money as I was in my corporate career, but I pay my bills, and the psychic income more than makes up for the six figure stock options. I feel like I grow, learn, develop and contribute every day. In my book, that’s a pretty good definition of fulfilling my needs for self-actualization.

What’s The Solution for Organizations?

In order to retain senior level women, CEO’s need to be willing to rethink why and how we do business.

  • Change the perception and the reality of the C-suite culture
  • Understand the contributions they are most personally inspired to make
  • Ask them about other aspirations beyond work and help them create the space for these
  • Help them feel like they are a valued part of a trusted high-performance team
  • Re-envision success for organizations – not just in bottom line results but contribution to society
  • Rethink decision-making – to make it more participative and collaborative
  • Rethink how careers are planned from a top-down to a more customized approach
  • Rethink standardized incentive systems to appeal to motivations that are very personal

All this is good for women.  It’s also critical for all the constituents in the organization (diverse talent, the millenials, and yes the men too).  We need to make all leadership personal.

What’s the solution for women?

As women leaders we need to get clear about our authentic leadership so we can find the right fit – to express our full talents and potential. We want to proactively engage in discussions with CEO’s rather than make decisions based on our perceptions and assumptions.

Both tasks are important. It’s where I want to make my contributions to smarter, more socially-conscious and prosperous workplaces.  My personal mission is for leaders to find their calling in the work they do so leaders and organizations are transformed.

Does this make me less ambitious? You decide.

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Additional Information:

To discover your personal leadership authenticity – The Authentic Brand YOU Workshop

Business Week: “This Time It’s Mine

Henna Inam - Professional Photo - ColorThis article was written by Henna Inam, executive coach, speaker, and consultant.  She works with women to help them realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders. They create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, and engagement. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Nestle, J&J, and others who know female leadership talent is good for business. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam