I’ve been writing regularly about the challenges of gender diversity in senior leadership roles in the United States. A recent survey conducted by Columbia Business School and the Women’s Executive Circle of New York and cited in a Wall Street Journal Article, Women See Slow Progress In Leadership, clearly demonstrates that things have not improved. According to the survey, women held only 10.7% of executive positions in the top 100 companies in New York State, measured by revenue. In fact, the number has actually dropped from 11.9% in 2006. The survey also shows that 68% of the companies have no women serving in top executive roles.
These numbers, while graphic, particularly in the poster child Blue State, come as no surprise. Equally unsurprising are time-worn arguments quoted in the article blaming the glass ceiling on women’s work/life preferences. Sadly, the current statistics are all too reminiscent of the days when there were no black coaches or quarterbacks in the NFL — another glass ceiling nobody had the courage to break. It’s a tragedy with no real justification. As I’ve pointed out over and over, this will get fixed when companies and their Boards want it to get fixed.
Here’s the bottom line. It’s time to stop addressing gender diversity as a work/life problem and begin addressing it as a talent development priority. Here are four key actions that will make a difference:
1.Commit to outcomes not programs. There is a huge difference between committing to results and just adopting programs. Can you imagine replacing the annual budgeting process with a series of programs to grow revenue and profit but no accountability for results? What a silly question. Of course not. Yet, when it comes to diversity, this is exactly what we do. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t get us very far. It’s time to get very quantitative about diversity, specifying female hire percentages, promotion percentages, development activities and their impact as well as positions held by job level. But numbers alone are not sufficient. We need to commit to these results as firmly as we commit to financial results and with the same rewards and consequences. Start by getting a team coach for your senior leadership team, specifically to focus on this issue, and jump start the process with an offsite workshop where distractions are minimized.
2.Use personality assessments in assigning mentors to high potential women. Most companies with diversity initiatives have mentoring programs, but they are not very scientific in matching mentors and high potential women. To do this properly you need to do two things. First, you need to assign as senior a leader as possible to each mentoring role, taking into account the job level of the high potential woman. The key is to get these women thinking like leaders as early as possible and to establish their executive presence. Second and most importantly, you need to know that the mentor and the high potential female are compatible from a relationship standpoint. You will be able to tell this by giving both of them the Four Groups 4G assessment. It will show whether they can respectively relate to each other for mentoring and learning without spending a large percentage of their time figuring out the relationship. Taking this approach will have a big impact on results. It will make the mentoring more successful. It will also make the aspiring senior leader feel comfortable with the senior executive, thus making the prospect of a senior executive role feel more collegial. I would suggest having the mentoring team take the Four Groups Assessment and keeping the results on file to match with future candidates for mentoring.
3.Assign only a limited number of individuals to to each senior leader mentor and hold the mentor accountable. Many mentoring programs fail because the mentors just don’t have the time to devote to the number of individuals assigned to them. This can’t be allowed to happen if you expect to be successful at gender diversity. What’s needed is a close relationship, not a quarterly meeting or check-in. This requires that each senior leader have very few individuals to mentor, usually not more than two or three. I can’t stress enough just how critical this is. If you want results, you need to work for them, and this is a critical aspect of the work. Once the mentors are assigned, they need to be held accountable for results. I mean results, as in promotions, appointment to succession benches, outside board seats, prominent speaking roles and 360’s that show broad recognition of the future senior leader’s progress. Make this a meaningful part of the mentor’s performance score. Remember, what gets measured gets done.
4.Provide early and frequent experiences which make high potential women comfortable with risk-taking. Studies show convincingly that, as they progress in their careers, women are less willing to take risks than their male counterparts. Interestingly, early in career, this is not the case. In fact, the risk of failing after sacrificing time with family is the real work/life issue. Get women comfortable that they will succeed and they will enthusiastically aspire to senior leadership roles. To do this, women need to be put in risk-taking roles early in their careers and continue to be challenged this way as they progress. No cushy jobs. There is strong evidence that taking this approach will have a huge impact on gender diversity at senior levels. But don’t just count on this happening. Institutionalize the practice. Spell out risk-taking behaviors, embedded in capability statements, for women to demonstrate at each level of leadership progression. And assemble a list of related risk-taking roles where these behaviors are needed for success. Then, make these actions a meaningful part of your gender diversity development programs.
So, back to where we started. The statistics on gender diversity are appalling while the case for breaking the glass ceiling is compelling. Do you have the courage to take the actions that will truly make a difference?