How to build leadership programs for women in your organization

The percentage of women who hold leadership roles in business, higher education and government grows with each passing year – sometimes dramatically, sometimes incrementally.

But every gain holds the promise of more gains, as young girls see opportunities previous generations didn’t.

“Each of us stands on the shoulders of all the women in our chosen professions who have come before us, who have blazed a trail,” said Barbara Bell (, a professor of leadership at Vanderbilt University and author of  “Flight Lessons: Navigating Through Life’s Turbulence and Learning to Fly High.”

“Others have done the hard work, and we must too. Throughout my career, I learned many deepening skills of leadership and was privileged with many opportunities to lead.”

But Bell, one of the first women to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval Test Pilot School, also says that businesses and other organizations can do a much better job of helping women reach their leadership potential. And March, which is Women’s History Month, is as good a time as any to get started.

She said some ways organizations can develop better leadership programs for women include:
Provide mentors or a support system.
 Certainly, a mentor can guide and advise those emerging leaders in an organization, which is valuable in and of itself, Bell said, “But it goes beyond just having someone who offers guidance. It’s important as women are developing their leadership skills to have someone in their corner.”

Bell said when she was an instructor at Navy Test Pilot School, she worked for a Navy department head, Commander Dave Kennedy, and a Marine Corps Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Bob Price, who did that for her.

“Both of these leaders supported my work and, more broadly, helped expand the roles of women in military aviation,” she said.

Allow them time to grow. Bell said too often, people think they need to have everything figured out before they take the risk of heading down a new path or beginning a new opportunity. But organizations can help women grow as leaders if they free them of this idea.

“Women need to understand that, as you become more senior in your leadership, you should let go of the notion that you have to know everything,” she said. “They also should understand that as their leadership responsibilities grow and become increasingly more complex, they should become comfortable being more of a generalist. One way of growing in leadership is to rely on those who work for you as the specialists and lead them in the direction you want them to go.”

Encourage, don’t discourage. It’s easy to point out obstacles someone faces and to express doubts about their abilities to overcome those obstacles, Bell said. Avoid that temptation. She recalls a career manager in the Navy who suggested her record wasn’t strong enough to get into Test Pilot School.

“Fortunately, I didn’t let him dissuade me,” she said. “By that point in my career, I was so used to the naysayers that I was not fazed.”

But it did affect her approach when she became a career manager later herself. She vowed never to discourage, but only to encourage those she worked with.

Understand that women leaders can be role models for others in the organization. In flight school, Bell became a role model almost by default because she stood out as the only woman in her Naval Flight Officer class.

“My calling to leadership included the privilege to be the example,” she said. “Other women who assume leadership roles have the same opportunity and privilege.”

And having role models who inspire others is good for any organization.

“For anyone, rising to the top takes hard work, endurance and persistence,” Bell said. “You have to be in it for the long haul. But whenever we create forward motion in our lives, we generate the lift that will take us to new heights.”

About Barbara Bell
Barbara Bell (, author of  “Flight Lessons: Navigating Through Life’s Turbulence and Learning to Fly High,” was one of the first women to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. Now she works to empower the next generation of female leaders. In 1992, Bell and fellow aviators went to Capitol Hill to help successfully repeal the combat exclusions laws, opening up combat aircraft and ships to women in the military. Bell holds a B.S. in systems engineering from the United States Naval Academy, an M.S. in astronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School, an M.A. in theology from Marylhurst University, and a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University.