Empowering Hi-Po Women

Despite evidence of a direct and positive link between women leaders and the financial performance of an organization, a new report finds they are not receiving key work experiences deemed necessary to gain entry into the C-suite. What can organizations can do to close the gender gap?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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While numerous studies have found that the percentages of women leaders directly correlates to higher financial performance for companies, a new report finds women may be lacking key career experiences that tend to give men an edge up on entering the C-suite.

"Organizations in the top 20 percent had more women leaders compared to the bottom 20 percent," says Tacy Byham, senior vice president of leadership solutions for Pittsburgh-based Development Dimensions International, which recently published its Global Leadership Forecast. She then lists a number of successful women-run companies, including GM, DuPont, PepsiCo, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Hewlett-Packard and Xerox.

In fact, McKinsey's 2012 Women Matter study measured a 41-percent-higher return on equity and a 56-percent-higher earnings margin for companies that have the largest share of women on their executive committees, she adds.

"We know that hiring more women in leadership roles has a direct value," says Byham, "and there are many top organizations that are much better at identifying and developing high-potential women than others."

But J. Evelyn Orr, senior director of the Minneapolis-based Korn Ferry Institute and editor of its research on women in leadership, says its latest findings suggest that women may be lacking key career experiences that tend to give men an edge up on entering the C-suite.

"Women need to seek out and say 'yes' to experiences that stretch their skills, and organizations need to provide women with opportunities to accept those challenges earlier in their careers," she says.

To that end, Byham says, succession planning programs should be more formalized. "With a loose approach, you often end up hiring people who are similar to you, but you get away from that if you formalize the process and look for everyone who has those particular characteristics, skills and abilities.

"It's even a good idea to set a quota for women," she adds, "because they do add value."

Regina Barr is founder and CEO of Inver Grove Heights, Minn.-based Red Ladder Inc., as well as founder of Women at the Top Network, which recently researched women in executive-banking roles and found that the percentage of women in executive roles at the nation's 50 largest banks has edged up ever-so-slightly - from 16 percent to 16.9 percent. "This is a great time with excellent opportunities for women who aspire to the banking C-suite," says Barr, adding that concern about the stability of traditional banking jobs has opened up a talent gap that women can now take of.

Leadership skills can be learned from a mentor, but Barr says women would do better to seek out a sponsor.

"Mentors are important, but they're different from sponsors," she says. "Sponsors take an interest in you and your success, while mentors provide advice and counsel but have no skin in the game. The sponsor will stick their neck out for you and help you if you make a mistake and make sure you're not limiting your career. Men often have sponsors, while women have mentors."

And because of that disparity, she says, there are two skills every woman should hone.

"The first is self-promotion," she says. "Women have business and financial acumen, but they don't do a good job of showcasing those skills. They expect their work to speak for itself, and it does not. You have to speak on your own behalf and be comfortable with that."

The second skill, she says, is negotiation.

"Encourage women to learn the art of negotiation and be comfortable doing it," Barr says, adding that it's not just about salaries.

"It's about the resources you need to be successful. Women get promoted, but they tend to never give up the responsibilities they had. Instead, they take on more work, eventually burn out and then look to get out. They have to be able to say, 'I can do that, but what about the resources I need to be successful?' The self-promotion will get you there, but negotiation keeps you there and sets you up to be successful."

Orr notes that men typically seek out or are chosen to deal with challenging or difficult situations, business growth, financial issues, strategy, and high-risk, high-visibility assignments, such as helping turn around a low-performing unit. "The study shows that women are either not being offered or are saying 'no' to critical opportunities more often -- leaving them a full leadership level behind in experiences when they are considered for senior positions," she says.

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Managing Principal Peggy Hazard, of Korn Ferry's New York office, says women have less access to high-visibility, challenging development experiences that would equip them to build the necessary skills.

In addition, she says, women are not motivated by status, power or scope of control in the way that men are.  "Women are more into collaboration, networking, and they have a different style of presentation and communication. This can impact the types of experiences women and men say yes to," she says.

"Companies that do well with gender balance look for the unique attributes and skills women unleash into the talent pool," Hazard says. "You can empower women by figuring out what they're motivated to do and make sure they're clear about the experiences they need to get there."

Hazard also says the advancement of high-potential women is a shared responsibility within any organization.

"Companies need to evolve in their culture and mindset to recognize that the relationship between a woman and her manager has an impact on the woman's trajectory," she says.

Companies can complement their development programs with coaching between women and their managers and/or other key stakeholders, says Hazard, noting that conversations about barriers and how to tackle them will transform working relationships.

"Not only does this have a far-reaching business benefit, it effectively changes the culture by changing the mindset of leaders and engaging all colleagues as allies in a partnership," she says.

"The conversation needs to be about where we have common ground, how we are different, and how we can work together to get the best results," she says. "Sometimes that means bridging our differences and sometimes it means leveraging our unique differences."

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