How to increase the number of female leaders? More “training” isn’t the answer

by Rosalie Harrison

I was recently consulted by a large international firm. They were launching a global mentoring initiative and wanted to create some additional programming for their high performing, successful women. The ultimate goal of the additional programming was to increase the number of women in their leadership ranks, which had been hovering for a very long time at the dismal industry average of 13%. Why did the company want to do something about it now? It was a matter of pride. Average performance was not in this client’s DNA. They saw a metric (percentage of women in leadership positions) that was under-performing, and they wanted to fix it. They’re market leaders – they know there’s an increasing focus on women leaders as a meaningful business performance differentiator. Now, the embarrassing issue of gender (under)-representation in their leadership ranks was finally on some executive’s to-do list.

I attended this meeting with the company’s high-performing women who had managed to crack the leadership barrier. As if they didn’t have enough to do, they had been tasked with the responsibility to create and champion this “extra” program for women. Their enthusiasm was clearly mixed, but their A+ achievement orientation nonetheless drove the process forward. They had a plan, but wanted to be sure. As a boutique player from a majority female owned and operated firm, I was there to give a second opinion.

The current plan had been put together for them by a leading global consulting giant. They slid the two-day “Women’s Mentoring Program” in front of me. I carefully reviewed the proposal and immediately resisted the urge to blow the metaphorical dust off it, it was that outdated. It read like a canned 1990’s-era training manual. The two-day itinerary stuck in my throat just reading it. I could not help but despair. Is this truly all of the progress we’ve made in the last 30 years? I could not imagine sitting through the proposed training, let alone feeling energized or engaged by it. It was particularly baffling, given how progressive the rest of their global mentoring program was.

So, can I clarify something? I asked.

Of course, they said.

This program is for the women in your company who are already high performing and successful?

Yes, they said.

I took a deep breath. May I be a little provocative here?

They exchanged nervous glances, but told me to proceed. This was, after all, the reason that they had sought a second opinion.

Let me see if I understand. You are going to bring all of your highest performing women together in one place for the first time in the history of your company. You are then going to provide these successful women with extra “training,” which you are not providing to the high performing men. One, let’s stop and think for a moment what message this sends to the rest of the organization. Two: What are you really teaching these women? You are going to teach them how to be confident. You are going to teach them how their female approach might be viewed by the male leadership. You are going to teach them how to overcome (clearly known) obstacles to their advancement in the work environment instead of committing as a company to identify and remove them. And when you are done “training” these high performing women, you are going to give them a networking and mentoring opportunity, where you parade them in front of all the men for a dinner?

For a long time, the room was pin-drop quiet. I resisted the urge to vent my frustration and just let this sink in. Then, I said, You are going to have all of your highest performing women together in one place for the first time. Is this really what you want to do with them?

Honestly, my client and I couldn’t rip up that outdated proposal fast enough.

After that, we never looked back. Now, we’re designing new ways to harness the unique business perspective of these high performing women. To start, our approach is to ask them what they need to be successful. Next is to identify corporate obstacles and then seek commitment from the leadership to remove them. We are also exploring additional key drivers for sustained performance, retention, and success – things like organizational flexibility and vitality – to aid in this process.

Our meeting that day was the start of a collaborative journey. As it turns out, just the process of creating this programming has been energizing for the business leaders involved. It should come as no surprise. What we’re doing isn’t just executing an item on some executive’s to-do list. This isn’t “training,” this isn’t “mentoring.” This is making the way for actual change.

Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Women Of Color in Tech Chat