Close-up: Wacl's bid to build next generation of female leaders

Female-directed training includes workshops and the Future Leaders Fund.

As we await the outcome of Lord Davies' review of women in the boardroom and whether legislation is the optimum outcome, businesses face some interesting questions.

It's not necessarily coming from a starting point of gender balance, more from the stance that we need to know what employees need from their leaders. Command and control is gone and teams are looking for a new way to work. How to identify what's needed and ensure that we are training our leaders appropriately is key to future success.

Popular culture is littered with the stereotypes of women as leaders, particularly those who see empathy as a weakness. I'll never forget the nervous laughter that greeted Meryl Streep's more cutting remarks during The Devil Wears Prada. It provided a clear contrast between the caring and sharing qualities that are normally seen as typical of a woman. The two extremes clearly can't encompass the variety of styles that all employees bring into the workplace. As the number of women in the workforce grows, how do we achieve the right mix for our business?

Interestingly, in a recent survey by McKinsey, 72 per cent of respondents believed that there is a direct connection between a company's gender diversity within management and its financial success - a figure that has increased in the past year despite the continued economical turmoil.

The starting blocks for increasing the role of women in leadership teams aren't too taxing. Starting from the top, visible monitoring by the chief executive was the action with the highest impact in the McKinsey survey.

Another factor was skills development training specifically tailored for women. This, coupled with mentoring, is what many believe provides the basis for creating the strong mix needed within leadership teams.

Of specific interest to me is the notion of female-directed training. As the president of Wacl, this is one of the elements I've been most keen on developing. At the top there's the Future Leaders Fund, which picks out potential future leaders and subsidises their training. The Class of 2010 has just been announced, and all nine winners not only have enormous potential but can also maintain focus while the virtues and value of soft fruit form a chorus to their chats.

For those who aren't ready to pursue a specific long-term training aim, Wacl offers other options, from workshops lasting a few hours to training days such as Gather.

A recent workshop attended by 79 young women covered the topic of work/life balance. This isn't a new subject but we received feedback that highlighted how participants weren't looking for the usual mix of trying to juggle family life, a career and some kind of space for you as an individual. Instead, they wanted some perspective for those who didn't have a family but wanted to know where the "edges" of work and life stopped and how to define boundaries.

So Lindsey Clay and the team responded with a panel of Wacl members who reflected the diversity of trying to achieve a balance between your work and your life. Attendees were free to ask any questions and some of them also contributed their own experiences to give people another perspective.

The next session will be on commercial skills, and there are a few other topics that have been requested that we're also keen to tackle, including effective parenting, networking, presentations/public speaking and risk-taking and decision-making. We feel that all of these sessions address an identified need and our feedback shows they are highly valued by participants.

Gather, on the other hand, is an annual all-day event with dazzling speakers, workshops and which also offers the chance to network with more than 300 other rising stars in the business. This year it takes place on 18 May and the keynote speakers are Trinity Mirror's Sly Bailey and Karren Brady of West Ham United and The Apprentice fame. I was lucky enough to be at Gather last year and it was an inspiring event for everyone who was there. It's a testament to how it affects attendees that Bloom, a networking group for young women in our industry, was the result of the three founders meeting at Gather and feeling that they wanted to build on the experience of the day.

In all of the training offered by Wacl, our aim remains the one that made Tess Alps start the Future Leaders Fund. Our members want to help young women to achieve their potential and offer support as they rise up within the business.

There is a great variety of training on offer in a number of forms but the thing that is common to all of our Future Leaders Fund winners is their intelligence, determination, focus, ability to think creatively, enjoyment of our business and great personalities.

Kathryn Jacob is the president of Wacl and the chief executive of Pearl & Dean