The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Women Advancing to the C-Suite: Why So Difficult?

by Gael O'Brien

Why make diversity so hard to achieve?  It is a provocative question discussed in a June 2012 Harvard Business Review article that distinguishes between action items and the leadership role of being clear what the vision for success will look like in five years.

For women seeking to advance in greater numbers to CEO and board roles, gender diversity is moving at a tortoise pace. Figures are about the same as last year; women represent 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 3.9 percent of Fortune 1000 CEOs  and 14.1 percent of executive officers.  Women hold 16.1 percent  of Fortune 500 board seats, up a point from last year.

So with years of research from organizations like Catalyst, McKinsey and others on promoting women’s leadership, and companies adopting programs to support women’s advancement, is it just a question of more time? Or is the small amount of progress an indication that organizations are standing in their own way, making gender diversity in leadership harder to achieve?

Two factors impact the answer to that question:  how the commitment to advance women is owned – what leading by example means -- and what a culture as a whole demonstrates about valuing people.

Some recent research addresses the impact of CEO commitment. I asked Joanna Barsh, a McKinsey Director, for an update on their research since our report last year that included McKinsey’s work regarding women, leadership and roadmaps for the future.  In interviews with 350 leaders, McKinsey probed to understand the difference between “talking” diversity and “living” diversity, Barsh said in a recent email update, adding, “CEOs who are living it deal with it all the time in every venue.”

McKinsey’s April 2012 report, “Unlocking the full potential of women at work,”  elaborates on the engaged CEO:

“When a CEO is the chief advocate and storyteller, more people believe that gender diversity matters. The difference between committed CEOs and others is subtle; the former makes the goal clear and specific, and they tell everyone about it, while the latter fold ‘women’ into ‘diversity’ and ‘diversity’ into ‘talent’ diffusing focus. In addition, hands-on CEOs reach out to get other senior male leaders involved in the effort, making them catalysts for change.”

McKinsey also recently interviewed 200 successful women, Barsh says, of which 90 percent indicated they had had sponsors. McKinsey found that when a CEO made sponsorship programs part of his or her personal agenda, they worked especially well.

Sponsorship, unlike mentorship, is an active, skin-in-the-game commitment where ideally, a sponsor provides stretch goals and opportunities and pushes the person sponsored to undertake both; the sponsor opens doors, connects, advocates for, and protects. Traditionally, women have not benefited from sponsorships as men have. For example, an internal survey at American Express found that most women surveyed had had one sponsor, while men surveyed had had three or four.

Sponsorships and diversity as part of a business imperative? At PricewaterhouseCoopers, the tone at the top is set by Chairman and Senior Partner Robert Moritz, who  champions the value of sponsors, crediting them with shaping opportunities that led to his chairman’s role. Underscoring the importance of sponsors in moving women up in the PWC organization, he addresses the importance of making the right sponsor pairings, and of sponsors receiving coaching, when necessary, in helping make others successful.

This focus has a larger purpose: PWC identifies its brand as a talent magnet. Diversity is essential in this, says Moritz, which is why the diversity officer is one of his direct reports.

In Moritz’ recent keynote address at Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business  inaugural forum on women’s leadership, Moving from Conversation to Action, he discussed the kind of culture needed to support successful sponsorships and the development of the best talent. The leadership team, he said, has to make sure the environment is right so that in a sponsor relationship and relationships between colleagues, people are comfortable talking to each other about work and personal issues.

“One of our biggest challenges,” said Moritz, “is to make sure we’ve got the right environment to have hard conversations, that we’ve got the environment where people feel they can pick up the phone and have an informal conversation; pick up the phone and talk about a work issue as well as a personal issue, and encourage that to happen.

“...If we are not talking about other stuff going on outside work,” he continued, “we’ll never create the environment to talk about the whole person. If we can’t talk about the whole person, you won’t get the performance you need. If you can’t get the performance you need, they won’t be successful and your organization won’t be successful.”

Contrast Moritz’s emphasis on the “whole person” with former GE CEO Jack Welch’s recent admonition at another conference about performance alone driving leadership success for women (disparaging mentoring and sponsorships etc.).

Moritz concluded his remarks by asking the several hundred people attending the day-long inaugural forum to stand and raise their left hand. The left hand, he said, “is your ambition; it is the individual that you are reaching for the stars.” He asked the audience to notice their dangling right hand. With that right hand, he asked each person to find a woman to sponsor “and bring her along for your ride....That domino effect will be huge...it will lead to action and lead to the impact we want.”

The reality is that diversity doesn’t have to be so hard to achieve. In the tortoise pace for gender diversity, we are losing the development of sorely needed talent.

I am reminded of a description of women’s leadership in Take the Lead by Betsy Myers,  founding director of Bentley’s Center for Women and Business.  She wrote: “Women tend to bring a very different dynamic to leadership, one that is collaborative and team-centered, that thrives on connection, relationship, openness, and cooperation with those who have different viewpoints and beliefs.”

It is a leadership of engagement.

So what is the vision for success in five years? Ever escalating numbers of female CEOs and C-Suite leaders joining their male counterparts to create cultures of engagement, where performance is driven by the whole person - and, as a result, performance and diversity are at record levels.

Gael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics

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