An Open Letter to Senior Executives

An insurance executive advises companies to cultivate women in order to grow successful businesses. Increased productivity and innovation as well as enhanced recruitment and retention are just some of the benefits, she says.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006
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Every business wants to get an edge on the competition. Your company may spend millions on research and development, hoping to discover some new product or process that will drive sales to new levels. In addition to that, you spend considerable time and money to recruit new talent and retain existing employees.

While those efforts are important, there is another area that could bring enormous benefits that is often overlooked -- the development of women executives for top leadership positions.

Studies have shown that management teams made up of both men and women are more innovative and productive than teams made up of just one gender. Because men and women approach problems differently, they are able to push each other to see things in new ways. By challenging each other's assumptions and ways of thinking, mixed teams are more creative, solve problems more quickly and are able to raise the overall performance of their organization.

Organizations that cultivate women for senior positions gain not just the talents of an often-overlooked pool of employees, but a workplace reputation that helps them to attract new talent and retain existing employees.

Despite these advantages, there are still very few women in senior management positions. Women currently represent more than 46 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 1.5 percent of CEOs and only about 5 percent of top earners. Corporate America has done an outstanding job of cultivating women for mid-level management positions, but far too often these women have not risen up to the next level for a variety of reasons.

This is not just a potential question of justice or equal rights. If women are not being developed for senior leadership roles, companies are losing out on the talents of half their workforces -- talents that could be used to further business objectives. Rather than fostering innovation, organizations are allowing themselves to remain mired in business-as-usual mind-sets.

Identifying The Barriers

What may sometimes keep organizations from cultivating women for top leadership jobs is a bias about women's leadership abilities and their ability to think strategically and make tough decisions. That bias manifests itself in a number of ways for women seeking to advance to the top ranks.

Top women executives polled by Catalyst, a leading research and advisory organization seeking to expand opportunities for women at work, say they have encountered a number of barriers to advancement, including:

* Gender-based stereotypes,

* Exclusion from informal networks, and

* Lack of role models.

There is a symbiotic relationship among these three barriers. Because gender-based stereotypes can persist in the workplace, women may find that often they are not seen as senior management material. They may tend to be excluded from the informal networks that are critical for advancement or have few women role models to act as mentors and to help show them the way.

Gender-Based Stereotypes

Although there has been a lot of progress over the past few decades, gender-based stereotypes can still create obstacles for women who want to advance in their careers.

Organizations are sometimes reluctant to promote women to senior executive roles because they are uncomfortable with the way they lead. They may be concerned women lack the strategic mind-set needed at the top or worry women will eventually seek less demanding careers in favor of more time with their families.

Other stereotypes can be based on the type of skills needed for the job. Women are often viewed as less competent in math and science, and so they may be perceived as unqualified for top jobs in finance.

Some of these perceptions, however, are the result of a misunderstanding of how women work or they are the result of insufficient mentoring.

Women, for example, are often viewed as consensus builders, unable to lead or make tough decisions. But they may, in fact, be collaborators rather than consensus builders. Women may prefer to gather as much information as possible before making a decision, but that does not mean they are unable to make a decision.

Top management positions also require a strategic mind-set. Men have been mentored throughout their careers to understand that at the senior levels of management they need to think strategically and that their technical and tactical skills are no longer as important. Women are more than capable of developing these skills, but they may not have been mentored in the same way as the men have. Because of this, they may simply not realize that senior management positions require an entirely different skill set.

Another potential obstacle for women is the perception that they will lack the dedication and commitment needed because of family pressures.

Flexible work arrangements can help to reduce the conflicts between work and family. With the advent of new mobile technologies, such as laptops, cell phones and Blackberries, however, it is no longer imperative that employees be onsite to get work done, and work arrangements can become more flexible.

Exclusion from Informal Networks

It may seem a cliché, but golf is still an important informal networking opportunity. On their way to and from the golf course and while they are playing, executives get to know one another, build relationships, mentor one another and talk business. Women, however, may find themselves excluded from this opportunity. When they do play golf, they may often go as a female foursome and miss out on an opportunity to network with senior male executives.

In addition to golf, women also tend to be excluded -- or exclude themselves -- from other informal networking opportunities.

When Sunita Holzer, Chubb's worldwide director of human resources, first joined the company two years ago, she noticed that her calendar filled up right away with people who wanted to stop by to introduce themselves and people wanting to go out to lunch. Almost every one of them was a man.

Men have often learned to reach out and make themselves known to senior executives. Women can often be reluctant to put themselves in front of senior management, or be unaware that they should. When they do meet with a senior executive, they are often unsure of what to say while men, on the other hand, may often have an "elevator speech" prepared well in advance.

Lack Of Role Models

Men arguably learn many of these strategic and networking skills so critical to advancement through mentoring. Given that more than 98 percent of CEOs and 95 percent of top earners are male, men have no lack of role models and mentors. For women, it can be a different story.

Although there have been a few women who have risen to the top in recent years, there still are not many. More importantly, most women in middle management do not necessarily have any real contact with them. Part of the problem can be geographic because women in middle management may be working in regional or branch offices rather than in the corporate headquarters where a top woman executive might be more likely to be located.

Breaking Down The Barriers

There is much your organization can do to cultivate promising women executives and help prepare them for consideration for senior management positions.

Suggestions for overcoming workplace barriers for women include the following initiatives implemented by the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos.:

* A strategic talent management process,

* Leadership development conferences, and

* Mentoring programs

To help overcome gender-based stereotypes, Chubb has engaged in a strategic talent management process. Through the talent management program, we have created a platform to review our critical top 20 positions and to identify potential candidates for succession. We create development plans for those individuals and then monitor them periodically to be sure that they have had opportunities to get the skills needed for advancement. When it comes time to promote someone, each candidate is rated on the same eight key leadership skills, so that stereotypes do not get in the way of an individual's skills and each individual is being measured on the same criteria.

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This year we also reviewed more than 200 employees to identify 121 best possible successors to other top positions. Through this process, we are not looking to fill some gender-based goal, but rather for the best person for the job, man or woman. We do want to be sure that women are considered for top management positions and that they are evaluated on the same criteria as their male counterparts, so our management team works closely with our talent management office and our diversity office.

Additionally, the stereotype that women lack dedication and commitment to the job can be challenged with flexible working arrangements. We have found that a pilot project to develop more flexible work arrangements for both female and male employees has led to significant gains in productivity. Developed in collaboration with the nonprofit Business Opportunities for Leadership Diversity Initiative, the 90-day pilot project involved two casualty claims-processing teams and an internal support team from Chubb's Western Claims Service Center in Phoenix

In the end, the teams exceeded the company's initial goal of a 5 percent, across-the-board improvement in productivity and achieved a 50 percent drop in unscheduled absences and a 40 percent drop in the number of overtime hours.

The pilot focused primarily on staff and supervisory positions. Senior management positions however, by their very nature, can be even more flexible in certain respects than lower level positions because they often involve meetings and conference calls that do not depend on the executive's physical presence and can be arranged to fit an executive's schedule.

To address the problem of the potential exclusion of women from informal networks, Chubb has developed leadership conferences for women, both top executives and women at middle management levels. These conferences bring women executives together to focus on the skills that they will need to advance. We discuss the need for them to find ways to build relationships with other executives and to form informal networks. We review various ways to create opportunities to meet with senior executives and what topics to discuss in those informal meetings.

We also provide senior managers with additional training to help them examine their own attitudes toward women and whether they may be consciously or unconsciously excluding women from networks or from consideration for various jobs.

To help give up-and-coming women executives more exposure to women role models, Chubb's women's development council provides mentoring for rising women executives. Mentoring takes place across geographic lines and across disciplines.

We hold conferences featuring top women executives for women in middle management jobs. Presentations might include strategic thinking and strategic planning. We also encourage top executive women to participate in external events as well, and we then publicize them internally.

All of these suggestions will take time and commitment on the part of your organization. First, your organization needs to realize the value of cultivating the skills of women executives, and then it must find ways to overcome any long-standing barriers that have prevented women from advancing.

We admit that it's not easy. It's not easy for women who are seeking to overcome cultural barriers and advance within an organization, and it's not easy for an organization's management to change long-standing ways of doing things and adopt new processes.

But organizations are finding that in order to grow their businesses and satisfy investors, it can't be business as usual any more. Your organization cannot afford to overlook the productivity and innovation that can come by having more women in senior management positions. Your business needs to take advantage of all of your resources if you want to stay ahead of the competition.

By failing to cultivate women for senior leadership positions, you can shut yourself off to innovation and productivity and fail to attract and retain top talent. Business as usual can leave an organization stuck in a rut and that won't win in today's competitive world. 

Kathleen Marvel is a senior vice president and chief diversity officer for the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies.

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