The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Women in the C-Suite: Finding Ways to Break the ‘Seal’

by Gael O'Brien

The business case for increasing the number of women in senior management and on corporate boards is continually being bolstered by data analysis and stories of changes impacting companies. The case has been made. The question is what will accelerate a tipping point?

The answer, I believe, is rooted in an organization’s and current leaders’ ability to break what organizational change expert Margaret (Meg) Wheatley refers to as the “self-seal.”

Research findings point to the benefits of increased gender diversity in improving corporate financial returns (while decreasing short-term profit emphasis), increasing sustainable business practices, and strengthening engagement and culture (while reducing vulnerability to ethical lapses). All outcomes that help businesses flourish.

And yet, this evidence hasn’t driven significant increases in the percentage of women at the highest levels. Percentages for women in the C-suite  and on boards continue to be about 14 percent and below 17 percent respectively, according to Catalyst .

The call to broaden the lens through which talent is identified and developed comes from many sectors. Long-time champion Catalyst, professional service firms like McKinsey, academic centers (including the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California Berkeley), and a growing number of advocacy organizations (like 2020 Women on Boards  and Women Corporate Directors (WCD)), offer data, resources, forums and action plans to focus attention and intention on increasing the number of women CEOs and board members.

Quotas are an intended driver of change in some parts of the world, while in others, increased emphasis is put on strategic imperatives like developing high potentials by having a sponsor.

Malcolm Gladwell raises the question “how can ideas be contagious like a disease?” In the case of more women being identified as candidates for CEO positions and board roles, creating momentum for the change requires many points of intersection reinforcing the same intention and purpose.

In December 2012, WCD’s Global Nominating Commission released “Best Practices for Director Selection and Development.”  Their 10-point action plan to increase the number of women on corporate boards also has some applicability to increasing women in the C-Suite. It matches intentions to measurable steps to which organizations can be held accountable.

The plan specifies:

  1. Build the pipeline through advocacy and mentorship.
  2. Assure every director slate includes at least one woman.
  3. Declare board diversity a necessary component of good governance.
  4. Turn CEOs into champions and change agents.
  5. Expand the pool.
  6. Provide specific board training.
  7. Sponsor more research.
  8. Report and write about the issue.
  9. Refer women to board seats.
  10. Exercise all your rights as a shareholder.

In addition, the report provides nearly 100 titles of articles, thought leadership, research and reports that support the case for more women on boards.

There have been other plans, and undoubtedly more will surface. This is all to the good. There is no one path to how an organization creates its intention and accountability to recognize, develop and attract high potential women and other minorities to board and C-suite roles. What matters is that there is a plan to which an organization’s current leaders are committed.

A huge hurdle in change is the psychological element of the “why,” which if bought into can make the “how” easier. Beyond the rational case – documenting what a critical mass of women in C-suites and boards of directors contribute to the company’s stakeholders – there is a personal awareness that needs to shift to make the impetus for gender diversity in leadership a reality.

I was reminded of a passage in Wheatley’s Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time.  She writes:

“I know that we notice what we notice because of who we are. We create ourselves by what we choose to notice. Once this work of self-authorship has begun, we inhabit the world we’ve created. We self-seal. We don’t notice anything except the things that confirm what we already think about, who we already are....When we succeed in moving outside our normal processes of self-reference and can look at ourselves with self-awareness, then we have a chance of changing. We break the seal. We notice something new.”

How can ideas – like ensuring a gender-diverse talent pool for top roles and advancing women in greater numbers to CEO and board roles – be contagious? It starts with ways organizations and their leaders break their self seals. In the ever-changing and unpredictable global arena in which leaders find themselves, breaking the self seal creates real possibility for change.

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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