Want a thriving career? Respect basics and plant seeds to nurture the “missing 33%”

by | Jul 8, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

Basics can be so boring. Basic food. Basic exercise. Basic sleep. Basic finance. Basic clothes. And let’s not forget basic business acumen.

Yet, basics play a crucial role in our development. Once the basics take root, they strengthen, grow, and bear fruit that helps us flourish.

Let’s take basic business acumen, or “the missing 33% for women,” as Susan Colantuono calls it. She’s the co-host in the Lead to Soar! Community, a global network of women committed to leadership and career development.

Colantuono says acumen is especially valuable as you move up in organizations and want to be considered for opportunities to lead the business. To be tapped, you need to demonstrate to top executives and often the board of directors too that you have a solid foundation in business, strategic, and financial acumen.

Yet, this acumen is often missing from women’s “career success equation,” Colantuono explains. Women start accruing the “missing 33%” early in their career because “very few women are clearly told how essential these three skills are for reaching the top.”  Or, women may have business acumen, but their superiors don’t perceive it (and think it’s missing), which can hold women back.

Colantuono says men outperform women when it comes to acumen, which is a proxy for business outcomes. By contrast on the other two elements, women do better than men on interpersonal and team skills, that is, engaging others. And managers rate women and men the same on their personal attributes, that is their “personal greatness” as she calls it.

To exacerbate the “missing 33%,” most mentors or coaches, especially external coaches, don’t address acumen. And to add insult to injury, much of the literature and popular media about women and their careers focus on what women need to “fix.” Women’s alleged deficits include needing to be more confident, more inspirational, more influential, better negotiators, better delegators, and less perfect. We also need to confront our imposter syndrome, step out of our comfort zone, and be more aligned with the rest of the organization. (And who knows what else I’m missing when examining women leaders from this deficit-obsessed lens, which is so unhelpful….)

And it’s not just the humans who are ignoring the “missing 33%” for female leaders. Colantuono discovered AI ignored acumen for women when she posed questions to Canva’s Magic Write tool about leadership tips in general and for women specifically.

As an executive coach, I must own up and agree with Colantuono that I’ve been contributing to the “missing 33%” problem for females, and certainly not intentionally. It’s an error of omission rather than bad or misleading advice.

My first mistake was assuming that my coachees have a foundation in business acumen and they’re staying up to date. My second mistake was not explicitly talking about the care and feeding of your business acumen to grow your career. (It’s ironic since my information diet is heavy on business issues, thanks to my journalism education and MBA.)

To change my ways so I’ll become part of the solution rather than continue contributing to the problem, I’m taking these actions: 

  • For one women’s leadership development initiative, my coaching colleagues and I are planting seeds that we hope take root. We’ve provided the participants with a comprehensive set of business-based questions that employees, recruits, customers, suppliers, and others could ask them. By preparing answers to these questions on their own or with their learning partner, they can ground themselves in business, strategic, and financial issues that affect their team, business unit, and the company.


  • Then for the second cohort that convened earlier this summer, we added three statements to our initial survey before the start of the development. Participants rate themselves on a scale of “1” to “5” with “1” as “not at all” and “5” as “very much so.” We’ll then ask the same questions at the end of the initiative to discover the extent to which the ratings have changed. (By the way, if you’d like to see these questions, just email me.)


  • And for the MBA students I coach, I’m now talking to my them about how they need to build on the business, strategy, and financial knowledge that they gained through their program. They can’t consider their studying of these topics as a “check off the box” activity. They need to develop their business acumen further, especially if they want to grow and develop in their career.

I respect and appreciate Susan Colantuono’s work in this area, especially her shining a needed light on this problem. I prefer different terminology, though. Rather than continuing to talk about the “missing 33%,” I suggest a reframe to break the pattern of a deficit mindset.

To be more positive and inspirational, let’s talk about the topic this way: To grow a strong and healthy career, you need to plant three seeds: business, strategic and financial acumen. Once they take root, continue to nurture, and feed them so they’ll feed and nurture you throughout your career. And it’s never too late to start.


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