By Tracy Tsai, PCC, CPC
Deloitte’s Women @ Work 2022 survey of 5,000 women across 10 countries showed that over 50% of women were planning to leave their employer in the next two years. McKinsey’s 2022 Women in the Workplace report supports this as well, showing that women leaders in the US are switching jobs at the highest rates they’ve seen over the past five years, with the top reasons being: 1) women are facing stronger headwinds to advancement than men, 2) they’re overworked and underrecognized and 3) women leaders are seeking a different culture at work.
Her New Standard holds quarterly Women’s Leadership Development Roundtables for heads of Talent, DEI and Learning to discuss issues impacting advancing women in the workplace. Recently, the group discussed how to retain women in today’s competitive environment. With contributions from Ted Fleming, former Head of Talent Development, CVS Health; Ryland McClendon, Head of DEI, J.P. Morgan CIB; Patrick Colvin, Head of Talent and DEI, Société Générale; and Kim Van Orman, SVP and CHRO, USI Insurance Services, there was a rich discussion on how organizations can retain and grow their women leaders. Here are some of our key takeaways based on this discussion:
1. Let business leaders drive talent discussionsNot only is it important to have regular talent discussions with your leaders, it matters who owns the process. Talent development discussions are typically led by the Talent Management team (usually part of the HR function). However, some companies have now transitioned this responsibility to the business leaders themselves (for example, heads of Finance, Trading, Marketing, etc.) These business heads meet with their direct reports and discuss high-potential members of their departments, what their next role might be and what they are doing to get them ready for this next step. Business leaders are better positioned to drive these conversations, because they have direct insight into what the business needs. While HR can create or curate development opportunities for high-potential individuals, the department head might be aware of a stretch assignment that would be more impactful for both the individual and the business. In addition, when HR owns the talent discussion, business leaders may feel like they are “off the hook” when it comes to developing talent, when in fact it should be one of their core responsibilities.
2. Don’t make assumptions about women’s career aspirations
Before having talent discussions or making a decision to move an individual into a new area or role, get clarity on what their career aspirations are. In his book Develop: 7 Practical Tools to Take Charge of Your Career, Ted Fleming noted that people tend to make more assumptions about women’s career aspirations than they do about men’s, due largely to traditional gender stereotypes around work and family priorities. For example, a manager might assume that a woman on their team would not want to take on a new assignment because she is pregnant or has children. Another might assume that a woman would not be comfortable working with clients or colleagues in a male-dominated industry or environment. While intentions may be good, these assumptions can lead to missed opportunities for advancement for these women. Instead, have a direct conversation with the individual to find out what she wants, prior to making any decisions or recommendations.
3. Promote based on potential
According to research by Gallup, organizations who select leaders based on reputation or tenure fail to pick high-potential talent 82% of the time. Instead, organizations should focus on how to foster a more diverse talent pipeline, identify potential leaders early on, and work to further develop that talent. Men tend to be promoted based on potential, whereas women are often promoted based on repeated success. This puts high-potential women on a slower career trajectory and also represents a missed opportunity for the organization to develop a future leader. Instead, recognize the individual’s potential, promote them, then give them mentoring and coaching to succeed.
4. Give women access to the “engines of the organization.”
In his book Develop, Ted Fleming described these “engines” as the most important functions or departments in an organization, and the ones that generate the most revenue and profit. Women often lack exposure to these key areas of the company, and instead tend to lead areas like legal, marketing and HR.. Giving women more significant revenue and budget responsibility offers them valuable experience that will position them well for senior leadership roles.
5. Cultivate a culture of feedback
Managers play a key role in women’s advancement in an organization, especially when it comes to giving feedback. Research shows that while 87% of employees want to “be developed” in their job, only one third say they have actually received the feedback they need to improve. At the same time, some managers are uncomfortable giving feedback, or aren’t aware of how to provide effective feedback. Therefore, it’s important for organizations to provide their managers with training on best practices (for example, making sure the feedback is specific, timely, and ongoing). Companies should also encourage women to continually and proactively ask for feedback. Building a culture of feedback requires acknowledgement by all employees that giving and receiving feedback takes practice.
6. Explain the importance of sponsorship
According to research by Catalyst, women start out behind men in the talent pipeline and tend to remain there even with mentoring. However, when women have sponsors, they’re just as likely as men to be promoted.
Sponsorship becomes even more important for women seeking to make it to the executive level. While women in more junior roles may progress by doing exceptional work, as they move up the ladder, having someone with a seat at the decision-making table to actively advocate on their behalf is critical. Sponsorship also benefits the overall organization. In HNS Accelerate, our signature women’s leadership development program, we find that when we help women connect to senior leaders in their organizations , they get reassurance that they are valued and have opportunities for growth. As a result, these women tend to stay with the organization.
7. Use storytelling to amplify the voices of women.Providing a safe space and opportunities for individuals to tell their personal stories is key to building a culture of acceptance and belonging. These stories can help to shed light on unconscious biases that affect women in the workplace. Examples of storytelling include:
- A woman leader talking openly about the ways she has encountered unconscious bias in her career, then offering advice to other women on how to deal with this. She could also suggest ways everyone can work together to help build a culture more welcoming to women.
- A male executive sharing how a conversation with a female employee made him realize that excusing her from a 5pm meeting because she has young children was putting her at a disadvantage, because she was missing out on important information. He realized a better approach was to hold the meeting earlier in the day.
8. Use numbers to understand where you are
If awareness is the first step to solving a problem, then numbers can shed some much-needed light on where your company stands. One example is that some companies are now undertaking pay audits, including a comprehensive analysis of compensation at all levels. They can then put a plan in place to address inequities across gender and race where they exist. An example would be looking to see whether men and women are making equal salaries when they are in similar roles with the same amount of experience. Several global banks have begun to do this in order to address their gender pay gaps. Companies can also use numbers to track how many women in the company hold senior level roles and how many women are promoted vs. men. While understanding the numbers is crucial, it’s even more important to encourage leaders to adopt behaviors that support gender equity.
9. Examine your company’s benefits.Benefits like parental leave, child care, and family care strategy consultation are key to retaining women, as they provide them with much needed support. It’s important to continually remind employees that they can take advantage of these benefits, and look for additional ways to support them. For example, USI has found they get better results when sales and leadership teams are in the office, so they’ve implemented creative solutions such as offering care coordinators for the “sandwich generation,” as well as emergency childcare for parents. In addition, USI offers a benefit called StrongSuit, which provides a personal assistant who proactively sends reminders about upcoming events, schedules appointments and provides recommendations on things like restaurants and summer camp. This service helps lift the burden on employees, driving retention and resulting in better job performance. Flexibility is another key offering that benefits women. For example, Societe Generale is maintaining a hybrid model of working from home two days a week, as well as allowing employees to work from anywhere for two weeks out of the year.
Resources to Explore
- Deloitte’s Women @ Work Report, 2022
- McKinsey/LeanIn.org’s Women in the Workplace Report, 2022
- Develop: 7 Practical Tools to Take Charge of Your Career, by Ted Fleming
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