The goal of an organization is to not just be competitive, but rather to stay competitive. In order to achieve growth, the cultivation of innovative thinking must occur in a climate of diversity. Leaders who get this, understand that hiring like-minded individuals is a liability.
It is tough not to be attracted to those who think like us. And why is that? We, of course, feel good when we are validated for our thoughts and our position. We naturally assume we have landed on the truth. This bias, though, promotes insular decision making.
Research demonstrates that companies that hire, develop and promote diversity are as much as 35% more likely to financially outperform their industry median. We know that diversity of gender, race, religion and perspective matters. Research aside, it makes intuitive sense that different views bring unique vantage points. Diversity allows for the ability to challenge thinking, create disruption and foster innovation.
We also know that, despite important gains, women still face challenges in rising to senior ranks within the corporate sector. When we look at S&P 500 companies, approximately 5.8% of CEO positions are held by women, and just 19.9% of board seats are filled by women.
Most organizations have no shortage of women initiatives, networks, and committees to address this tremendous gap in talent. The intent and spirit are correct. These forums provide tremendous support. Women’s events and networks represent a platform for dialogue and the sharing of great, bold ideas. Aligning talented leaders with seasoned executives early in one’s career can be particularly powerful. However, there is something missing in these great endeavors.
We need to revisit the math. If women represent only 25% of senior roles globally, then men hold the power relative to talent and succession. They are the decision makers — full stop. This has significant implications for our female leaders.
Now, more than ever, it is time to revisit women leadership initiatives. These initiatives did have a place and time. Many of these networks and events helped to raise awareness and visibility of a very real and challenging void within the corporate sector and business world at large.
I would suggest female leaders who are aspirational and invested in their career trajectories consider an additional approach. All high potential female leaders should be assigned an executive sponsor. This sponsor must be senior enough — in other words, they must be part of the senior leadership team. It is then incumbent for that executive to work with these high potential women and create opportunities within the organization to work on top-tier assignments. These assignments can have a rotational component with the primary objective of providing exposure to different parts of the business and, equally important, other members of the executive team.
Executive sponsors should be incentivized relative to their ability to create opportunities for these high potential females to excel and transition to roles of ever-increasing responsibility. The essence of this challenge is that female leaders will not be able to populate executive ranks in equal numbers until men open the gate.
Once the gate is opened, there is every reason to believe that women will be equally powerful to lead organizations in impactful and profitable ways. When this happens, women will no longer require this institutionalized focus. Instead, both genders will naturally garner well-deserved sponsorship and a voice at the most senior of tables, including board representation.
By Cindy Wahler
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