Are You Missing the Mark on Your Women in Leadership Strategy?

For the past decade I’ve worked with organizations who sought to increase their female leadership pipeline. Some are devoted to creating a better future and making movement on the numbers. Others are struggling with what this means to their businesses and what they are willing to invest in an issue that has no easy answers. 

Below I outline the 5 common misses I see organizations make when thinking about this issue. Do any of these resonate with you?

#1. Misunderstood

Many organizations have a narrow perspective on the issue. I have heard everything from, this topic is a passing fad…to…I guess we should pay attention because it’s the right thing to do. These organizations don’t fully grasp the implication of this issue for customers who are increasingly demanding that their partners, suppliers, consultants and investors represent diverse populations. They don’t realize how the expectations of those coming into the workforce will not stand for an organization that does not reflect their communities, their customers and themselves. I was leading a roundtable with a group of senior HR leaders recently and one commented that during an interview a young white male asked about the diversity of their workforce and of their senior leadership team. It was one of the factors he weighed in determining a company’s culture, the culture that he would like to join. And this line of questioning by candidates wasn’t a one-off example, it was becoming the norm. 

#2. Misaligned

I also observe organizations struggle with misaligned investments. They may hold occasional networking events or offer programs that skill up women for more senior roles. What they fail to realize, however, is that increasing the number of women in senior roles is more of an organizational culture challenge, than it is a training or recruitment challenge. You can, in fact, pay for diversity. You can hire and promote more women to impact numbers in the short-term. But creating a workplace that fosters inclusiveness, one that makes leadership desirable for women, and that offers flexibility during key age and stage periods, is a whole other question. 

#3. Misdirected

Many organizations with very good intentions create initiatives such as mentoring or training programs for women. These are important and should not stop. However, in isolation they will not get the results you desire in the long term. Assisting females, without parallel support for people managers, only solves half of the equation. I helped conduct a study with a bank who sought to understand what retained women in a segment of their organization. The hypothesis of the organization was that it would be flex policies, pay or development opportunities. The number one factor that presented itself, however, was the direct impact of the female’s manager. Were they supportive? Did they allow for flexibility? Did they provide high profile and equal opportunities for advancement? The experience and support of the direct manager plays a crucial role.

#4. Miscommunicated

The biggest mystery organizations grapple with is how to handle communications around this topic. Organizations are getting better at communicating sponsorship with diversity initiatives from the top. But the challenge is ensuring that communication and engagement make its way down throughout the organization where the impact is really felt. Addressing this challenge means calling light to it, which often results in fear of reverse exclusion, strict quotas or unjust promotions. Women are secretly ushered into programs behind closed doors sometimes lying to their colleagues about where they’re going. They are fearful of being exposed as—gasp!—getting invested in to the discrimination of their male counterparts. I get it, these are touchy and very real issues. But we have to make the uncomfortable conversations matter-of-fact. We are investing in this—here’s why it’s important—and here’s your role in it. This understanding needs to permeate the whole organization.

#5. Misled

The final miss is about ensuring that leaders actually walk the walk on the issue. It's easy to create and communicate goals. It's easy to say you're in support of creating a more diverse workforce. Doing it is the real challenge. Leaders need to ensure they are executing the goals they set forth and acting as role models. Putting your money where your mouth is means holding yourself and others accountable for making different decisions day to day. 

Is your organization’s approach to advancing women in leadership misunderstood, misaligned, misdirected, miscommunicated or misled? Tackling this challenge will require a holistic and systemic cultural change to make it stick. Is your organization up for it?