Close the Gender Gap in Your C-Suite By Changing Your Approach to Leadership Training - Senior Executive

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L&D Strategy 7 min

Close the Gender Gap in Your C-Suite By Changing Your Approach to Leadership Training

Early on, men tend to get promoted above women. Here’s what you can do to invest in high-potential women employees.

by Liisa Rajala on May 18, 2023


  • Women are often overlooked for leadership and executive roles due to a perceived lack of executive presence, preconceived notions of what a leader looks like, and little to no employer interest in their career development.

  • Learning and development (L&D) executives should create a leadership pipeline by working with managers to measure employees’ career development as a part of their job performance evaluations.

  • L&D leaders, in collaboration with DEI leaders, should also develop mentorship programs and establish peer groups to help support and encourage employees, especially among underrepresented demographics like women.

Women comprise 46.8% of workers in the U.S. But just one in four C-suite leaders is a woman, and only one in 20 is a woman of color, according to a five-year study by McKinsey.

After surveying 400,000 employees at more than 300 organizations from 2017 to 2022, the consulting firm concluded that women get promoted less than men early on in their careers. Just 87% of women and 82% of women of color are promoted to entry-level management positions versus 100% of men. And those figures dwindle at each subsequent level.  

“There is a broken rung,” says Cynthia Adams, chief learning officer at Leadership Circle, a global leadership assessment and coaching consultancy based in the U.S. “Women are underrepresented in leadership, and the [leadership] pipeline is not as robust for women.”

Fixing that rung and adding diversity to your leadership team can help strengthen your company. “I think that is important in the longevity of an organization,” says Trinnie Houghton, executive and team coach at Rippleffect Consulting. “An effective executive team includes both masculine and feminine leadership styles. This is about creating more balance.”

By implementing actions below, executives can establish a leadership pipeline with a strong foundation of career development and growth opportunities that helps retain high-potential women.

Prioritize emerging leader development as part of supervisors’ responsibilities and a long-term succession plan.

Leaders across teams — including human resources (HR); diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); and learning and development (L&D) — contribute to establishing a workplace environment that identifies and supports potential rising stars. Sometimes it’s the role of the CLO to emphasize or embed that focus on leadership development in the company culture, “so it’s something that is valued, that is measured,” says executive coach Joel Garfinkle, author of “Executive Presence: Step Into Your Power, Convey Confidence & Lead With Conviction.” “It’s an expectation, and they try to build it within the company.”

To do that, Houghton says companies should consider an annual talent review, rating employees with a focus on what’s next for the company. Throughout the year, managers at all levels should be trained to regularly check in with employees and discuss their personal goals and career growth opportunities. These individual assessments can help identify emerging leaders, along with their strengths and weaknesses. Managers can then coach employees on leadership areas that require improvement and recognize what support they need to reach the next level.

“Work together on a professional development plan that will demonstrate concrete learning opportunities and track accomplishments. Invite them to interview for growth positions and give honest feedback about career progression,” advises Joyce Newmyer, chief people officer for Adventist Health in Roseville, California.

Train and encourage managers to give emerging women leaders visibility and opportunities to learn and grow.

Indeed, managers must give emerging women leaders access to decision-making tables and opportunities to practice executive skills. “Women need to become comfortable with offering clear opinions, clear feedback, clear contributions, and clear requests and demands,” says Newmyer. “Managers, mentors, and coaches can assist in [the] development of this skill by asking probing questions to help women become comfortable with increased directness and clarity.”

Some questions she recommends:

  • What is the desired outcome?
  • How will your team know what you expect?
  • What possible outcomes have you considered?
  • What other potential solutions might your team suggest?
  • What are potential pitfalls, and how can you mitigate those possibilities?
  • How will you measure success?
  • How can you solicit additional input from your team?
  • What are potential misunderstandings that could threaten a successful outcome?

Managers should also help women leaders gain visibility in front of the executive team and other key leaders. When nearly 400 CEOs were asked how they chose their next-level leaders,100% of them said that executive presence can differentiate a person from the crowd, and 89% said it plays a key role in getting ahead, according to a survey by spoken communications and presentation firm Sally Williamson & Associates. 

Garfinkle lists a number of situations where high-potential employees can display executive presence, including leading a high-profile project, getting the necessary resources for their team, or implementing organizational changes. Newmyer also suggests encouraging women to make presentations that highlight their observations and contributions.

However, understand that the extent to which a manager carries out career development goals for their employees will vary. That’s why other positions of support and access to internal or external resources are important as well. More on that later.

Track new hires’ career progression and regularly measure their leadership qualities.

Career development cannot be assumed to be within a manager’s purview unless your company makes it a measured expectation.

“Keep data for new hires into leadership roles as well as internal promotions, and track and trend the data to ensure intentionality in increasing the numbers of women leaders,” says Newmyer. “That intentionality will lead to purposeful preparation of high-potential women.”

The success of particular initiatives can be measured by tracking women’s career progress over time. For example, media company Nielsen runs a 15-month leadership development program, called the Diverse Leadership Network, for mid-career, high-potential talent that has at least 50% gender diversity and a target of 25% racial/ethnic diversity. The program consists of curriculum, faculty workshops, case studies, and 1:1 cross cultural coaching for the duration of the program, and culminates in a graduation capstone at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

Chief diversity officer Sandra Sims-Williams reports that 50% of the program’s sixth cohort of participants have moved up into new roles.

When hiring an executive coach or organizing a group training for high-potential employees, Garfinkle advises surveying and interviewing managers and direct reports before and after to identify specific management behavior that needs to be changed and then evaluate the employee’s progress.

In the beginning of a coaching program, Garfinkle will interview eight people including direct reports, peers, and superiors of the individual he’s working with. At the end, six months later, he’ll survey them to see how much the individual has improved on the specific behaviors.

Provide internal support programs including formal mentoring and employee resource groups.

Formal mentorship programs and employee resource groups (ERGs) can help build women’s confidence and create a community of support that energizes rising women leaders.

Through mentorships, women learn how to advocate for themselves and that they don’t need to be perfect all the time. “Quite honestly, I think men need that too [but] women have been so far behind the curve… [They] tend to carry a level of self-doubt that’s different than men,” says Adams.

ERGs, which may be focused on a shared identity or experience like gender, offer peer-to-peer opportunities to discuss shared experiences. At Nielsen, for instance, Sims-Williams is executive sponsor of Women in Nielsen (WIN) Business Resource Group, which hosts annual summits giving leaders at Nielsen and other speakers a day to share stories of inspiration, perseverance, and self-awareness. The summit also offers members workshops on topics such as finding fulfillment in remote work and developing a career path. 

Bring in external resources such as leadership or curriculum programs and executive coaching.

Traditionally, HR leaders have led group development programs, but as companies get more lean, Garfinkle sees CDOs, CLOs, and chief people officers more often outsourcing an expert in a subject matter important to a group of rising leaders (typically mid-level). Topics include communication skills, women in leadership, or other relevant curriculum. 

“You get a fresher perspective from someone who is an expert in the area and in tune with what’s happening in the moment in that specific area of expertise,” says Garfinkle, who will soon conduct a career advancement program, in addition to individualized executive coaching, at Microsoft. “You also have more diverse options of what you have to choose, and sometimes outsourcing can be less expensive than having a staff in place that does it.”

Success in external leadership programs depends, of course, on the quality of the program, notes Newmyer. “Opportunities to learn from presentations and lectures can be valuable, but combining that with participation and discussion or activities will enhance the learning and help the leader envision practical ways to use new information,” she says.

According to consultancy Sally Williamson & Associates, executives can add value by setting the tone at the beginning and offering feedback at the completion of a program for future leaders, which also provides employees with exposure to the executive team. 

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