The image features of photo of Sharon Ehrlich and one of Ross McLean. Both are smiling at the camera. The text reads: Sharon Ehrlich in conversation with Ross McLean, Episode 47, Challenges and Opportunities for Men in Supporting Women's Leadership,

You’re listening to a recording of a live broadcast of the Living While Leading Podcast. In this episode I’ve invited Ross McLean, Vice President of Aiven, a Finnish software start-up company to discuss the Challenges and Opportunities for Men in Supporting Women’s Leadership and development.

We talk about personal experiences and strategies for men to actively support women in the workplace and how sponsorship is more effective than mentoring in propelling women’s careers. We also explore the impact of unchecked affinity bias in the performance appraisal process.

Keep listening to gain a deeper understanding of the male perspective on effective allyship.

Find the full transcript and other resources for women leaders at


Welcome, everybody to the Living While Leading Executive Corner. My name is Sharon Ehrlich. I’m an executive coach, podcaster and the owner and founder of Living While Leading which is an executive coaching practice for women in leadership roles.

Today, I have the pleasure of welcoming my guest, Ross McLean. He and I are going to be talking about the challenges and opportunities for men in supporting women’s leadership. So, before I go any further, Ross, a warm welcome to you. Can you please introduce yourself to everyone?


Yes, I’m going to try and speak quite slowly because I’m Scottish and I have an accent and I am aware that sometimes people are challenged with keeping up with the pace of my speech. Thank you for having me on. I’m Ross McLean. Hello, everyone. I’m the VP of Global Enablement at a company called Aiven.  They’re a Finnish startup based in Helsinki. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sharon in previous lives, and we stayed connected. I’m thrilled to be here and happy to get into this very, very interesting topic.


Starting off, can you share a personal story or experience where you actively supported a female colleagues advancement within your current organization or one of your past lives? And what impact did that have?


I think a lot of the challenges we see in this area are rooted in unconscious bias. And it’s kind of programmed in. The first thing I would say is that, historically I’ve been guilty of this without realizing it.  So, I think that the some of the aha moments for me really came working alongside a woman and just being able to understand their perspective.

It’s really hard for me to understand that naturally because I don’t have to deal with, the things they have to deal with. I can think of a bunch of examples involving a good friend of mine, Jenny Kenyon. We’re at Snyk together. She came in from Cisco and had a bit of a career change as a sales leader at Cisco came into an enablement role.

She went on to do great things that Snyk. I think the first thing is really understanding where people want to go and what motivates them. Understanding what her goals were, making sure there’s alignment there. I just gave her opportunities to showcase her talents.

I think I know it sounds simple, right? I think sometimes people think there are crazy answers. The challenges if you’re in a leadership role is what I see as the opposite behavior, which is — I need to show my values a leader. And actually, your job as a leader is not to do that. It is to develop and invest in your people and give them the opportunities. Understanding their perspective and listening to other women as well.

It heightens your awareness of some of the things that you’re just not aware of. I think that’s one part and then it’s really understanding where they want to go try to be able to offer some sort of coaching to develop them. Then it’s really just give them opportunities to go and showcase that talent. That’s the biggest thing you can do. And I think that shows a lot of belief and gives them belief and confidence.


The comment that you made about being a manager or leader. It’s not your job to be the rock star and in front and center, but to promote other people. That’s a comment that is valid for any of the members of your team no matter what their gender is.

The other thing that you said that I think is really important, is sometimes we just try to over engineer what support and allyship looks like. It can be very simple. Just mentioning that person’s name when they’re not in the room is a form of sponsorship to say ‘yes, I believe that this person could be a wonderful addition to this project.’ That’s what sponsorship looks like. That doesn’t take a lot of effort at all.

Let’s talk about how men could use their positions of influence to advocate for policies and practices that benefit women in the workplace, such as flexible working arrangements or parental leave.


I think a lot of companies are modernizing their thinking there. Especially with in most households you’re in a family situation. Everyone’s working and this is challenging. It’s easier for me having been through certain things in my life to be able to empathize in terms of parental leave. Transitioning back to work is such a critical one. It can be looked over because it’s not just about people feeling supported for being out for a period of time.

I think for the employee themselves. it feels you feel like you’re missing out, you’re going to fall behind. There’s a whole psychological thing that comes with that as well as this huge life event happening, which can change your priorities. So, there’s your general company policies of like length of time you have and all those good things and I think I’m seeing a lot more modern thinking in terms of that being a priority for companies.

And understanding that people in those situations having that time is good, but I think the transition back is almost as important. Making sure that the employee feels supported and especially women feel supported. That when they take a lengthy leave that when they come back that there’s a reorientation into the business to try and set them up for success.

You think about things like performance reviews and career advancement, that shouldn’t be something that’s held against them. You do see there that in companies where they have certain policies around —maybe not explicitly, but it may be counted against women and can even set them back in terms of their career and I just don’t agree with that.

It’s the way things have been historically and it takes such a long time for these things to really become a habit for people. What I see in terms of policies and frameworks it shouldn’t matter whether you’re male or female, what your race your color or anything like that. None of that should matter. The challenge is people do have these unconscious biases that absolutely are the root cause of a lot of the, of the inequity that people see.

That where I’ve seen this go wrong. Performance reviews are a great example because that’s obviously a key to career progression and how you’re perceived by the company. I’ve been in several of these calibration workshops and companies do a really bad job of that. This is one thing I would say you want to fix, is to get this right if you want to help and support women.

Every company has these employee resource groups that are often run by women to get other women together. I think is fantastic in terms of women supporting each other. I also think sometimes it’s a little bit of a checkbox for companies. I don’t know that it actually addresses the root cause of the problem.

And when I go to these performance reviews, there’s somebody being discussed, and you hear things like ‘oh, they remind me of me when I was younger’ and actually there’s a framework that’s missing there. You have to ask ‘What’s the role? What’s our expectations? This is where they are. How are they living up to those expectations?’ That’s a different conversation.

And I’ve been in situations where I have seen this where the unconscious bias was so obvious. When you start using that framework, it actually forces people to reflect and realize, wait a minute, actually, I’m just being really nice here because this person thinks like me and reminds me of me. I think this is where men really have to challenge themselves to take a step back here and say, well, what’s the role? What do we expect to the role? How are they performing against those expectations?

That forces people to check their biases. What I see typically in these sessions is people get to run with the biases and people don’t really challenge them. I think a lot of women feel hard done by in terms of the quality of pay and look at the root cause that’s the one thing I think is the most fundamental thing to fix.


There are a couple of things I’d like to comment on. The first one is about this affinity bias. It’s when you have a bias because someone graduated from the same university or college that you did and so, therefore, you favor than some way. Or someone has the same gender or presents the way you do, so you favor them. We have all witnessed it.

One of the biggest challenges is to raise your hand and say, excuse me, I see something here that looks like a pattern, and I just want to get some clarification on it. And I do believe that we have a responsibility to challenge that kind of behavior when we see it.

You also talk a bit about transitioning back to work after a leave of absence that’s a result of having a child. One of the experiences I’ve also had is looking at CVS or resumes where you see that there’s a noticeable gap and how those CVs ended up very quickly in what we call the round file, you know, the bin because everyone says, well, that person hasn’t been around for three or four years.

We need to do better in that area as well to challenge ourselves to say excuse me, this person, had a career, made a life decision, took a step back, and now is back and doesn’t mean that the intellectual capacity has diminished in any way. They can still contribute. They can still make a difference. And that’s something that I think everyone in a leadership role, recruitment roles and HR can also make a tremendous difference by taking those candidates seriously.

The last thing that you mentioned about the fixing the performance appraisal process we could spend three hours of live talking about how broken those systems are. You won’t fix it from one day to the next but calling out the most egregious parts of those processes that are just hurting people, women, and probably people from underrepresented groups that needs to be challenged very vocally.


The processes are set up with good sentiment, they’re just not executed well.  A lot of the time you see somebody’s been overpraised because of unconscious bias. When actually look, they’re doing their job but they’re not doing much more. Then you have somebody else and they their accomplishments are somewhat diminished. This is where I have seen the biggest disparity.

You’re almost reminding people about what the process should be. That’s so powerful, because that’s where people start to learn go, oh, there’s nothing better than self-reflection realizing, geez, I’ve come in here with a really biased view of things. I need to address that.

If you focus on diversity of thought in your organization, you’ll have diversity. The challenges is — do I like being surrounded by people that think like me? Yeah, of course. Do I work with people that rub me up the wrong way sometimes. Yeah, they do. But actually, that’s positive. But if I’m not challenging myself to see things from different perspectives, I’m not growing. I’m not understanding the full picture. And that’s where diversity of thought is so important in your organization and your teams.


there is enough data from organizations like Detroit and KPMG, where the numbers support when you have diversity from all different dimensions — let’s think about where we are. We’re in a period of time, where we have so many different generations working at the same time, from people who are Baby Boomers all the way to the young Gen Z, working in the same organization. This is an opportunity that should not be ignored.

When you have people who come from different socio-economic backgrounds. The way that folks approach problem solving is a lot different than someone who has come from an economic privilege as opposed to someone, who like me who came from an economically challenged situation, and it goes on and on. I could not agree with you more when it comes to that.

We could paint you as a superhero here Ross and say that you’ve done everything right in your career as a leader but I do want to challenge you a little bit on that. Can you identify a moment when you realize that your actions or the prevailing corporate culture may have inadvertently hindered a woman’s or women’s advancement in your organization? And how did you address this realization and what changes came from it?


I’ve been as guilty as anyone of doing some of these things. And again, not in a conscious way. I was in one of these performance reviews where more than one female member of staff I believe was hardly done by in terms of the level of bias. I made an attempt to address but was quickly shot down and I wasn’t strong enough. Anyway, long story short, I was in the room. I think what I realized I didn’t know how to challenge it in the right way in that moment.

I tried instinctively in the moment, and it didn’t really work. The outcome was a handful of females that were, to me, not fairly reflected. So, I had a chat with our HR business partner after and I just asked him. I was like, ‘can we look at the most recent promotions and just look at some data here? Just to see if I’m if what I’m thinking is crazy.’

And the data actually validated there was a problem to deal with now. I would feel way more equipped now. And again, life is about building experience. I know exactly what to do now, having been through that. What I did trigger then was a review at a more senior level which confirmed that we actually do have a problem here.

That was the biggest learning or aha moment for me was like seeing it and then not really knowing what to do in that moment. It was obviously challenging.


What you described Ross was not a lost opportunity, right? You weren’t able to react in the moment, but in retrospect, you had a time to reflect and then, look at the numbers. Sometimes when you’re dealing with a culture that is not very quick to change, sometimes when you approach it from the data perspective, this can get people at least to pay attention.

If you strip all of the emotion out of it, and you’re just looking at the numbers, the data starts to speak for itself. And hopefully if your organization is evolved enough, they start to pay a bit of attention and try to pick apart why the numbers look the way they do.

One of the topics that I discussed very often as a public speaker is the topic of mentorship versus sponsorship. I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but women tend to be over mentored. Why? Because people like to tell us what to do basically. Sponsorship is a lot different. What are people saying about you when you’re not in the room? How are people putting their reputation on the line to promote or give this ability to somebody else within the organization? From your perspective? How can male leaders effectively sponsor more women towards the professional success?


I think that’s a great distinction. I see a lot of these programs that are mentorship programs and I think you’re right that they’re overly used. And sponsorship to me is where the words mean action. And most companies I’ve worked if I look at the exec level, generally white male, it’s a thing, right? I fit into that category, my confidence level, going in front of groups like that is maybe different than somebody who doesn’t come from that category.

And I think that’s the piece as well that a lot. Some of this is building confidence.  So it’s giving people the confidence, it’s giving them the opportunities. Then you have to invest to set them up for success. So I think this is where, I can see a sponsor can give you all these opportunities. But if I just set you up to fail, I’m not really sponsoring you, right.

It has to be both things. And I think it’s being willing to make those commitments and put the work in to set them up for success. I will always speak well when they’re not in the room. But it’s actually giving them facetime with the CEO, but in a way that you’re setting them up for good. I have the privilege of knowing what that person cares about, how they think. So how do I help you and coach you? So, when you go in front of that person, they’re like, ‘wow, she’s a rockstar’ that’s setting somebody up for success:

I think the challenge is that people can overthink this. It has to be anchored in, what their strengths are, what their superpowers are, what their growth trajectory is. It’s got to be aligned to those things. It’s not just for every single person in your team all the time. Sometimes waiting for the right moment to say, I don’t want to put you in front of this group of people until you have something really compelling to talk about. So, let’s go and build something compelling that you can take to them, right. So that’s part of the motivation.

It’s very connected to just understanding their strengths, understanding some of the areas they might need some coaching. There can be confidence building because I’ve worked with some women who feel when there’s a male leader who’s more senior in a call, they can go into their shell quite quickly if they’re challenged on things. So how do I help prepare them for that to build their confidence so they can, be articulate and calm in those moments because I felt that way. I know how it feels to be kind of caught off guard and be like, ooh. I think mentorship is great. That’s what men have to really commit to.


What you described there is really creating a support system around what sponsorship looks like. It’s not dropping someone into the sea of sharks and letting them fend for themselves but really ensuring that there is a level of preparedness, that they’re ready. You want them to win, and you want them to be successful.

Looking ahead. What transformative opportunities do you see arising for men actively supporting and promoting women in leadership roles?


The reason that we talk about men and women here is that things aren’t equal. You have to be a leader in an organization that that really champions some of this stuff and commits to these things. Your job is to develop them, so they grow and they go and do something else. It’s a two way thing. I’m talking about this like as a one-way street. I have learned so much from all these women. And I think that’s what you’re going to get back.

You’re going to be a better, more compassionate understanding person. It’s going to make you a more rounded person and make you more effective in your role.


Thank you again, Ross for joining us today. Please feel free to connect with Ross and me on LinkedIn.

And if you’re a male leader and you need support in building a strategy so that you can lift up the women in your team feel free to DM me I would love to hear from you!