Is Your Organization on Target in Developing Women for Senior Leadership Roles?

By Kathy Gurchiek May 2, 2017
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MIAMI—Organizations often miss the mark in developing women as leaders, said Tammy Heermann, senior vice president for leadership transformation at Lee Hecht Harrison in Toronto. She spoke about "gender truths" during a concurrent session at the HR People + Strategy Annual Conference on April 25.

They miss the mark, she said, because:

  • Developing women for senior positions is not seen as a strategic business imperative, and organizations don't grasp that customers, including employees, are increasingly demanding diversity—including among leadership.
  • Initiatives exist, but they are scattered and have a limited focus. Organizations don't realize, Heermann wrote in a paper for Lee Hecht Harrison that she also distributed to session attendees that "the number of women who move into more senior roles is more of an organizational culture challenge than it is a training challenge."
  • Initiatives are misdirected and fail when women don't have the support of their managers.
  • Programs are not widely communicated throughout the organization.
  • The organization is "not walking the talk" or holding people managers accountable for not developing women as leaders. 

Women Hit Obstacles in Career Paths 

In most sectors, women are joining organizations in about the same number of men and many are advancing to first-line manager roles. However, the leadership gap widens significantly at the senior level, Heermann said.

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One company working to overcome this challenge is Saputo, a global dairy manufacturer with 12,500 employees. The company is trying to build internal leadership development to meet its board's challenge to develop more women into senior-level positions, according to its director of talent management, Kim Lesser, who also spoke at the concurrent session.

The company, based in Montreal, was founded by an Italian immigrant family in 1954, when they started making cheese in their bathtub and selling the cheese to neighbors. Today, about 76 percent of its employees are men, with plant operations running 24/7 throughout the year.

Men and women are advancing into leadership positions at about the same rate (men at 6.4 percent; women at 6.8 percent), but most of the women work in areas such as marketing and human resources. The number of women leaders in the company's manufacturing division is low.

And while the company trains employees in leadership in the early stages of their career at Saputo, the number of its employees ready to take on director-level positions and higher is quite low, Lesser said.
The company is in the early stages of its initiative, which includes tapping male and female employees who show high potential for leadership to attend special workshops—although Saputo purposely does not link the initiative to succession planning to avoid creating expectations about future roles.

"We want to develop leadership skills" beyond being "just a manager of people," Lesser said, noting that the number of people ready to assume director-level positions and higher is low.

In the new initiative, high-potential men and women attend gender-segregated workshops, then a joint workshop. A third workshop for men and women will deal with developing strategic leadership skills. While 95 percent of the content for the first workshop was the same for both groups, the one for women added a focus on confidence-building and how women's negative self-talk and insecurities about advancement can hold them back—a conversation they may not have had if men were in the same workshop, Lesser said.

Future leadership initiatives at Saputo, Lesser said, will include formalizing a diversity strategy and policy that ties in leadership development for men and women. It also plans to integrate leadership training into its succession planning.

Women can be their own worst enemies, Heermann said. In addition to self-doubt about their skills holding them back from opportunities, other behavior blocking their way includes:

  • Difficulty giving up control; men are more likely to delegate tasks, leaving them more time for leadership responsibilities.
  • Avoiding risk, including hesitating to raise ideas during a meeting or to take on an assignment.
  • Drowning in execution of duties, in part because of their ability to multi-task. "It's not that the capability is lacking," Heermann said. "It's getting trapped in the day-to-day frenzy" that leaves no time for exhibiting leadership.
  • Collaborative influencing. While collaboration results in group buy-in, it "can be perceived as not taking a stance," Heermann said. For women to develop as leaders, they need to learn to develop a point of view—to say "thanks for your input, and this is what we're going to do."
Women require a different type of support for their development, according to Heermann. One-on-one coaching is particularly effective in elevating women for leadership opportunities because it can help alleviate self-doubt about their skills and preparedness for leadership, she said.

However, moving women into more senior roles "is more of an organizational culture challenge than it is a training challenge," she noted in her paper.

"You can hire and promote more women to impact numbers in the short term. But creating a workplace that … makes leadership desirable for women and that offers flexibility during key age and stage periods is a whole other question."

She recommended that organizations:

  • Set clear expectations for how employees can become leaders.
  • Build a culture of strong employee development and integrate it into the company culture.
  • Talk openly about the realities of, goals for, and approaches to diversity in the organization. Mentoring or training programs for women cannot happen in isolation, she wrote; women also need the support of their direct manager to pursue development opportunities and a company culture that makes leadership desirable for women. 

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