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Why Manager Involvement is Critical to Women’s Leadership Development

Why Manager Involvement is Critical to Women’s Leadership Development

By Tracy Tsai, ACC, CPC – Leadership and Career Coach

We know that making individual behavior and mindset shifts can accelerate women’s success in the workplace, but making changes at the organizational level is also essential. While it’s encouraging that many companies have increased their efforts to close the gender gap with investments in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at the company level, women’s day-to-day experiences remain influenced largely by those they work with. Managers are on the front lines of these day-to-day experiences, so they play a critical role in the effort to drive this change.

A 2021 McKinsey study shows that when managers support and prioritize DEI efforts at an organization, employees are happier, less burned out, and less likely to consider leaving their jobs. It makes sense then, that managers who support women’s leadership development initiatives can be a powerful influence to help women get the maximum benefit from these programs.

However, a common barrier that managers face is that they tend to have lots of competing priorities, and they may not see employee leadership development as a critical item on their focus list. Some managers may even view participation in these programs as an interruption or distraction from work, rather than an important investment for the company as a whole.

So how can you get managers to be more involved and invested in women’s leadership development initiatives? Here are some steps we’ve learned are key.

why manager involvement is critical to women’s leadership development

1. Communicate the Importance of Their Role

Before the leadership development training or program even begins, emphasize to managers that their involvement is critical to the success of the program. Provide managers with an overview of what the program will cover, and communicate the important role they play in helping women apply what they’re learning. Make sure managers are aware of the ways they may be asked to participate during the program, such as providing 360-degree input or giving feedback on development goals. At HNS, we invite managers to an orientation where they receive an outline of the curriculum and tips on how they can help reinforce learning. Remind program participants to also do their part by checking in with their managers regularly throughout the program to share their goals and ask for feedback on their growth.

To bring the point even closer to home, ask managers to think of people who made a difference in their own career advancement, including those who mentored and sponsored them. Help them realize that this is their chance to make a real impact for the high-potential women on their team. Making it personal often has a real impact in their involvement.

Companies can do their part by making sure managers have the resources and training they need to fully support their team members–and by rewarding them when they do.

2. Show C-level Support for Development Initiatives

It is encouraging to see that 87% of companies are highly committed to gender diversity, up from 56% in 2012, according to the 2021 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Company. However, if you ask employees what they think, the number is much more sobering. Only half of employees think gender diversity is a high priority for their organization, and that number has remained unchanged over the last five years.

How can companies impact this? C-level leaders set the priorities for the company, so when they’re engaged, it has a positive trickle-down effect. Managers are more likely to support gender diversity efforts, and employees are more likely to believe that their company does as well.

In the C-suite, company leadership can more effectively drive systemic change by establishing and communicating clear goals and accountability for gender diversity efforts. When the perception of women’s leadership development shifts from a “nice-to-have” to a priority that’s being measured, these programs will receive greater acceptance and drive more effective action across the organization.

It also demonstrates commitment from the C-level to have an executive kick-off women’s leadership development training initiatives. This communicates to managers at all levels the importance of manager engagement in these development efforts.

Companies can also hold managers accountable by tying a piece of manager compensation to DEI initiatives such as advancing women. In 2021, over 50% of companies held senior leaders accountable for progress on gender diversity metrics, up from a little over a third in 2015. The results are encouraging so far. Seventy-three percent of senior leaders are highly committed to gender diversity, and close to half say they’re working to improve gender diversity.

As an example, in the 12-month period through February 1, 2021, 99 companies in the S&P 500 included a diversity metric in their compensation program, compared to 51 companies three years ago. In October 2020, Starbucks became one of a few large US companies to roll out a long-term incentive program for their senior leadership team that included DEI targets. As study after study continues to show that a diverse workplace leads to better business outcomes, we will likely see more companies including this metric in their incentive compensation plans.

why manager involvement is critical to women’s leadership development

3. Instill a Learning Culture

A company with a pro-learning culture allows participants to get the most from leadership development initiatives. Managers can help shape this culture at your company by encouraging all team members to seek out and take advantage of learning opportunities, so that no one feels guilty taking time away to do so.

Also, by actively working on and sharing their own learning and development journey, managers can make the case by example and demonstrate the value that development initiatives have brought, and continue to bring, to their own careers. Managers can inspire their entire team to adopt a growth mindset and by actively modeling what this looks like for team members at all levels. The positive effect is even more significant if the manager is a woman too, as she is walking proof that the organization invests in and values women’s leadership development.

Managers can also help instill a learning culture by helping the participant apply what they’ve learned. Once a participant completes the program, managers can help them reflect on their takeaways and work with them to set goals that are aligned with these learnings and give them the opportunity to apply these concepts. If appropriate, managers can also ask the participant to share with the rest of the team about their experience in the program, building a larger web of support for the participant and celebrating their endeavors.

tips for a successful sponsorship program

4. Encourage Managers to Act as Mentors and Sponsors

A study from Catalyst noted that while women made up 47% of support staff roles globally in 2020, the proportion of women in senior management roles was 29%, indicating a “leaky pipeline” as women move up the corporate ranks. For women of color, the drop-off is even more significant – between the entry level and the C-suite, representation declines by more than 75%. Women of color account for only 4% of C-level leaders, a number that has remained largely unchanged in the past three years. So how can managers help?

Managers know the organizational landscape and understand what skills or behaviors are critical to success in the organization, so their guidance is key. For high-potential women, having a mentor or sponsor can be critical to getting important roles that lead to senior leadership.

Some of the ways managers can mentor and sponsor women in development programs include strategizing about key people in the organization for them to meet, giving them regular and on-going feedback and helping them to navigate the process for promotion when they’re ready for the next move.

According to a Harvard Business Review article by Herminia Ibarra, mentorship and sponsorship can be done on a range of levels. On one end of the spectrum is a mentoring relationship, where the mentor provides personal advice and support. On the other end is a sponsorship relationship, in which the sponsor puts their reputation at stake to advocate for another person. In between mentorship and sponsorship are a range of other helping roles that managers can play, including strategizing, making introductions, and offering a high visibility project.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts, especially the leadership development of women, managers have a critical role to play. Yet too often, managers underestimate the importance of their involvement. Manager support and sponsorship are key elements in creating a culture that helps women thrive and advance. By sharing the tips above, you can increase awareness of how manager involvement helps to drive the success of these programs. Begin by communicating early and often with managers about women’s development initiatives and emphasizing the importance of mentorship and sponsorship to women’s success. Establish C-level support, and ensure development initiatives exist within a larger context of a learning culture at the firm. As a result of your efforts, your investments in advancing women will pay dividends not just for the participants, but for the company as a whole.

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