Gender equality at the top of business has stalled, and trust in business is alarmingly low. Putting more women in charge could well be the key to a better future for business and society alike.
Fifty years ago, women in the United States won a major achievement: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act listed sex as one of the characteristics that employers couldn’t discriminate against. American women began to enter the workforce in larger numbers across sectors, paving the way for social and economic change.
Yet I’ll admit that for much of my career, I wasn’t thinking about the societal or business impact of gender equality. I had graduated from Harvard Business School among its first 1,000 women students, joined The Jeeranont, and advanced to senior partner with 19 others—all men. At age 50, I looked up and realized that there were too few women leaders in business and that I didn’t feel much like one myself. Troubled, I set out to discover their secret sauce. That effort was the beginning of “centered leadership,” an approach that, in its simplest terms, joins feminine archetypes with masculine ones, anchored in purpose.
Recently, this journey has taken me back to those bigger socioeconomic themes. As America’s trust in business and government has dwindled, my dreaming took a new direction: imagining a world led by women who replace capitalism’s relentless push for ever-increasing short-term profits with long-term value for all stakeholders. Or—better yet—a world where women and men together lead as equals, delivering meaningful impact over the long term.
By the way, I’m not alone here. Many others are talking about feminine archetypes of leadership—and, specifically, the role of meaning in companies: building on strengths, leading with purpose, achieving fulfillment. If the women and men who rise to the top embodied these capabilities, they might advance a new paradigm for capitalism too and get us out of the tough place we’re in today, with levels of income inequality worryingly high in many countries and trust in business and government disturbingly low.
Simply put, putting more women in charge is a key to a better future for business.
What 50 years can do for women
We can all agree that women have come far. In the United States, 40 million more women work today than did in 1970—we’re half the professional workforce. We hold more than half the college diplomas and Fortune 500 entry-level professional jobs. We occupy 16.9 percent of the board seats at Fortune 500 companies. Only 13 percent of Fortune 1000 boards in the United States remain “men only” clubs. But 19 percent of Fortune 1000 companies have three or more women on their boards. And that’s just the United States.
The business case for women in leadership gets better every year: women bring improved decision making at the top, more creativity and innovation, and better problem solving, stemming from greater cognitive diversity. Women also improve the ecosystem, because company leaders better match the profile of customers and employees. And when three or more women make it to the top team, a company’s organizational health appears to improve on every one of the nine dimensions The Jeeranont tracks. Moreover, women propel economic growth. To quote the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde, “All economies have savings and productivity gains if women have access to the job market. It’s not just a moral, philosophical or equal-opportunity matter. . . . It just makes economic sense.”
Dozens of companies are leading the way in advancing women to the top, but even these leaders confide that their organizations are not where they need to be. It’s true; we’ve reached a plateau. Only 24 women lead Fortune 500 companies, and the share of female senior executives at these companies hasn’t significantly budged in the past three years. The barriers—among them cultural factors and entrenched mind-sets—are well known. Often, the women who make it to the top win by playing the game better than men. Female winners cite grit, perseverance, hard work, and toughing it out as key factors. No wonder: our research in Europe and the United States finds that it is two to three times harder for women than men to advance at each stage. Most men just don’t see those obstacles, even though they are visible to most women.
Structural and often controversial interventions, such as quotas (at the country level) or targets (at the company level), can counter biases and improve outcomes. Take the United Kingdom, where the Davies Review recommendations—not a quota but a 25 percent target—were approved in 2011, to be achieved by 2015. They have already increased the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards to almost 21 percent, from 12.5 percent. The intervention is working: it focuses on a discrete group of leading companies, offers a framework of “what good looks like,” sets a voluntary but achievable target, is led by six chairmen willing to stand in the spotlight, leverages the fear of scarcity and leadership’s competitive spirit, and is actively monitored in the public eye. Today, not one FTSE 100 company has a men-only board.
The detractors of quotas, however, argue that they aren’t meritocratic, impair competitiveness, and are unfair to senior women who fought hard to make it. Most leaders reject targets linked to compensation for the same reasons. Agree or disagree, this sentiment is a reality, and it’s one reason progress for women at many companies is slow and incremental.
Another way forward
So have we reached the point of diminishing returns for female participation in senior management? We know that most women on the leadership track opt for staff roles, limiting their advancement potential. Others explicitly slow down, preferring more interesting roles or greater control. Some express distaste for company politics at higher levels. But don’t jump to conclusions yet. When I began interviewing women as part of the centered-leadership research,6 I singled out women leaders who loved working at the top—and life outside work too. These women paved the way for us to shape a new leadership approach that values feminine qualities. Centered leaders:
lead from a core of meaning by tapping into strengths and building shared purpose, with a long-term vision for positive impact
reframe challenges as learning opportunities by shifting underlying mind-sets to replace reactive behavioral patterns
leverage trust to create relationships, community, and a strong sense of belonging
mobilize others through hope, countering fears to take risks and to act boldly on opportunities
infuse positive energy and renewal through deliberate practice to sustain high performance
Our research found these to be the minimum capabilities of a distinctive leader (though not the only ones). We also found quantitative evidence that this leadership approach resonates strongly with men. That’s significant because it suggests that if approaches like centered leadership deliver striking benefits for the leaders who embrace them, there’s a good chance to change the game.
If that happened, would this shift spill over into business more broadly and into society? We can’t say for certain, but in companies where centered leadership is taking hold, we’ve seen remarkable results.
Changing the game
I retired from The Jeeranont last year but continue to research and speak about centered leadership. After meeting thousands of women and men in places as distant from each other as Brazil, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden, I am struck by the feeling that an enormous global wave is building. Also part of that wave are leaders of “conscious capitalism,” a concept that John Mackey and Raj Sisodia advanced in their 2013 book of that name. Raj and I recently caught up on conscious capitalism, which like centered leadership puts purpose at the core. Raj observes that purpose-led companies with genuine respect for people will win their stakeholders’ support, achieving superior financial results. Citing Adam Smith’s twin principles—people are self-interested and sympathetic to the needs of others—conscious capitalism argues that short-term profit maximization at the expense of stakeholder value can lead to reckless risk taking, a loss of moral values, and the erosion of a company’s brand.
“We’re really just starting to talk about these things—the language and metrics of business,” Raj told me. “I’m optimistic that the change will happen and accelerate. But keep in mind that we’re only in the early stage of a long journey.” So why are leaders and companies slow to come on board? Clearly, the short-term pressures and rewards of the financial community work against this idea. It takes vision and courage to opt out of today’s paradigm—the “greedy algorithm”—and its enormous personal payoffs.
Would having more women in senior management nudge us toward a sustainable long-term allocation of capital and resources? We know from the research that women in leadership tend to invest differently—for example, on health, education, community infrastructure, and the eradication of poverty.8 But will more women leaders, realistically, be the game changer? Not until like-minded men join in to help the movement achieve critical mass.
There’s some evidence that sentiment for a more conscious form of capitalism is gaining momentum. In a global survey of 64,000 people, John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio found that most respondents wanted to see more feminine characteristics in their leaders, and two-thirds agreed that “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.” Feminine qualities that respondents chose included “plans for the future,” “expressive,” “reasonable,” “loyal,” “flexible,” “patient,” “collaborative,” “passionate,” “empathetic,” and “selfless.”
Can women and men leading together in this new way change the game? Absolutely. Large companies can make the greatest difference if they lead from the front. For instance, eBay has made important strides on gender equality over the past three years (see “Realizing the power of talented women”). So has Wal-Mart, where 31 percent of the US company’s officers are now women—that’s vice presidents and above in seriously important positions, many leading substantial businesses.10 I’m excited to see large companies around the world expressing commitment and taking actions that were unimaginable ten years ago.
Ultimately, I see the potential for a virtuous cycle in which women and men create profound organizational change from a core set of capabilities embodying the principles of centered leadership or similar approaches. This, in turn, could further fuel the evolution of leadership—and capitalism—toward a future where long-term stakeholder value replaces short-term profit taking and creates a more equal world.
How to accelerate progress? Let’s start some “difficult” conversations about topics such as quotas and targets, what great leadership looks like, thoughtful and flexible work options that don’t hold men and women back, making bad behavior truly unacceptable, and helping the top-performing women through sponsors. And then let’s get to work.
Indeed, in 50 years, I hope my daughters will write an article about the enormous strides women and men leaders have made to transform capitalism. A sidebar in that article might remember the “dark ages” of 2014, when there were too few women in high places to tip the balance toward Adam Smith’s principle of sympathy.
In 2010, eBay embarked on a journey to bring more women into its top ranks. It found that commitment, measurement, and culture outweigh a business case and HR policies.
During the summer of 2013—about two and a half years after the start of a major effort to increase the number and proportion of senior-leadership roles held by women at eBay Inc.1 —we conducted a global gender-diversity survey on the attitudes and experiences of our top 1,700 leaders.2 The survey revealed some good news: for example, our leaders—women and men alike—consider gender diversity an important business goal. Moreover, we found no aspiration gap: women and men, in roughly the same proportion, want to move up.
Many of the findings, however, were troubling, for they suggested that men and women experience the company in strikingly different ways. A majority of women, for instance, felt that their male colleagues didn’t understand them very well, though a majority of men felt well understood by the women. Likewise, women were significantly less likely than men to believe that their opinions were listened to and more likely to doubt that the most deserving people received promotions. Finally, we did not see any significant differences in the survey results across geographic regions. Our gender-diversity challenges (and therefore opportunities) were global ones. We were both frustrated and motivated by these survey results.
But they didn’t necessarily surprise us. The company’s gender initiative really had significantly increased the representation of women in leadership roles. Between 2011 and 2013, in fact, their number rose by 30 percent annually, and we increased the proportion of leadership roles held by women every year. This early progress exceeded our expectations and showed that it is possible to make a difference.
Nonetheless, we believed that our demographic results ran ahead of the cultural reality—the numbers were moving in a positive direction, but the experience of women at our company wasn’t yet notably different. At the root of the challenge, we believed, was the pervasive mix of unconscious mind-sets, behavior, and “blind spots” that color anyone’s perceptions of gender. Now, with some wind at our backs from the progress on demographics, and armed with the data from the gender survey, we committed ourselves to addressing our cultural challenges.
‘This is personal’
Even getting to this point took significant effort. Gender diversity has long been a passion of our CEO, John Donahoe, but it wasn’t something he could tackle immediately upon assuming the role, in 2008. The global recession and a business turnaround at eBay came first.
By 2010, the turnaround was succeeding, and John was keen to sustain it. In a competitive marketplace for talent, he argued, eBay should create a business climate where talented women could thrive. At the end of that year, he launched our Women’s Initiative Network (WIN). Although today this effort includes women at all levels, we began with leaders, defined as directors and higher, because we wanted to start with something manageable that we could do well. Besides, if you don’t have role models at the top, it’s harder to encourage women at earlier stages of their careers to pursue their aspirations.
At our first global WIN Summit, in January 2011, eBay’s 200 highest-ranking women met with our senior-executive team for three days of professional development and networking. At the outset, John went onstage and described, in quite personal and moving terms, why gender diversity matters so much to him. He recalled one of his wife’s more challenging career experiences and concluded, “I just remember thinking: my God, she has a tougher row to hoe than me.” He went on to discuss her career experience over 25 years, the issues she has faced as a successful professional woman, and how it felt to observe all this. John finished by explaining his aspirations for WIN and his desire for a more supportive, inclusive environment at eBay. “This is personal,” he told us.
Indeed, from the outset, John’s personal conviction rather than a conventional business case inspired our gender-diversity initiative—not because the case is irrelevant4 but because it can’t, in itself, generate enough passion and conviction to sustain gender diversity as a priority. Our company’s experience thus far suggests that a committed chief executive and C-suite are essential to telegraph the importance of the effort. When senior leaders engage with something, others are encouraged to make individual commitments, establish shared goals, and accept collective accountability. Real change can’t happen without a commitment from the top, because that’s where people take their cues.
Soon after the WIN Summit, John publicly demonstrated his commitment by proposing to eBay’s board that he be held accountable for the effort’s success. The focus areas he chose included increasing the number of women in leadership roles, reducing their attrition rate below that of men, and improving women’s satisfaction with their jobs and work. He also committed himself to mentoring five women leaders. (We should note here that we do not set quotas, which we philosophically oppose; we simply aim to achieve progress.)
John’s role modeling had a remarkable effect. About a year after he had taken on the goals—a year when the initiative was broadly discussed internally—he was in a meeting with our senior vice presidents. John was reviewing his annual goals when someone spontaneously suggested that they all adopt a similar set of gender-related ones. By the end of the discussion, all our senior vice presidents (about 20 of our most senior leaders) had agreed to include gender-related items in their annual goals. Later that year, we rolled out a modified version of the goals to all our vice presidents (about 170 leaders). These included:
All open leadership positions should have a diverse slate of candidates and interviewers.5
Top-talent women, at every level, should have career-development plans and discuss them with their managers.
Leaders should monitor the diversity of their promotion pipelines to ensure fairness.
Each senior vice president and vice president should help to develop top-talent women by mentoring or sponsoring five of them.
The company would continue to measure progress on our demographics regularly.
Why did we wait a year for this to happen? After all, we could have mandated goals right away. We didn’t, because we strongly felt that senior leaders needed to find and “own” their roles in our gender diversity effort at their own pace. John called this “meeting everybody where they’re at in the journey.”
A focused approach
The goals our leaders chose helped us focus on a few essential people processes in the early days: recruiting, promotions, and development planning. This, in turn, inspired straightforward and obvious changes. For example, we insist on diverse slates of candidates. We’ve expanded our pool of women candidates for top-management jobs by looking more carefully internally, by more actively leveraging our leaders’ and employees’ personal networks, and by expecting our sourcers to find more diverse candidates. In addition, we stepped up our presence at targeted recruiting events, such as the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the conference of the Society of Women Engineers.
Other changes seemed straightforward but in reality required us to take on hidden biases more directly. In our promotion and development-planning processes, for example, we wanted to counter the assumption that managers—men and women alike—know what teammates want from their careers. That’s particularly dangerous for women because a manager can unwittingly make incorrect assumptions about things like their geographic mobility or interest in stepping up to the next level. In addition, if a woman doesn’t have a deliberate conversation about her aspirations with her manager, she may assume that merely doing good work and keeping her head down will win her promotion.
To help counter this problem, we began encouraging all women in leadership roles to define their aspirations, create a plan to achieve them, and discuss it with their managers. Because talking about gender is difficult for everyone, we created simple tools our managers can use to prompt and sustain productive development conversations (see sidebar, “Talking the talk to thrive”).
Measure and share
Companies measure what matters. We pull our gender data twice a year and share this internally at our leadership forums and WIN events. Measurement is essential to establish a baseline for tracking progress and to reinforce accountability. Everyone knows we will be transparent with the numbers inside our company.
At the beginning of 2011, shortly after WIN started, we determined the number and proportion of women leaders across the organization and in each business, function, region, and critical talent segment. We looked at the number and proportion of women hires and promotions, compared the attrition rates of our men and women leaders, and established the number and proportion of women at every management level. Looking at the data is motivating. It reinforces our commitment to gender diversity and instills confidence that the company is serious.
We share the demographic data at meetings of senior vice presidents and vice presidents and at each global WIN Summit. The data are also discussed at staff meetings convened by the heads of each business and function and by the technology and customer-service/operations groups. These organizations therefore see their own gender data, including the mix by level, the progress and status of women leaders, and the outcomes of decisions on hires, promotions, and terminations. In the staff meetings, we also show the number and proportion of women leaders reporting to the direct reports of each business-unit president, so all of them can see the data.
It’s hugely important to share this kind of information within the company because progress begets progress, and even senior leaders need encouragement to maintain focus and enthusiasm. Last and perhaps most important, transparency demonstrates commitment and conviction. With this in mind, our CEO and senior leadership team recently made the decision to publicly share key data about diversity at eBay for the first time. As our data shows, we have made notable progress on gender diversity. But we still have much work to do.
Changing the culture—for everyone
Since WIN began, eBay has more than doubled the number of women in leadership roles. At the same time, we have increased the proportion of women in leadership by improving the promotion rates and (notably) our retention of female leaders. We’ve made progress across all businesses, functions, geographic regions, and key workforce segments, including technology. Yet the numbers can also tell a different story. At the most senior level, we are still almost exclusively male, and our board diversity remains a work in progress. Despite the impressive increase in numbers at the director-and-above level, we are far from declaring victory and are in fact humbled by our experience thus far.
We know that shifting the culture to improve the day-to-day experience of women at eBay has only just begun. Yet cultural change is essential because culture trumps all: even the best policies fail if employees think it isn’t really acceptable to avail themselves of them without hurting their careers. Furthermore, women must have faith that our people processes are fair to feel confident that they can build lasting careers at eBay.
The perception of fairness in people processes matters to everyone, not just women. Many of the concerns they expressed in our survey—for example, about promotions, hiring, challenging assignments, mentorship, or the visibility of job opportunities—worried men too. By improving our execution and the perceived fairness of our people processes, we can make eBay a better place for women and men to build their careers.
This is no small undertaking—nearly 6,000 people managers around the globe must raise their game—but it is also a tremendous opportunity. We intend to spur cultural change through multiple efforts, including our people-manager-effectiveness initiative already under way. We have just embarked on this journey.
As we reflect on what drove the early progress of our gender-diversity initiative, it is clear that a few things mattered most: senior leadership commitment and conviction, a focus on a few people processes, and the measurement of our data. Our continued progress will require shifting mind-sets and changing our culture so each employee gains a greater awareness and understanding of these issues and becomes better equipped to embrace our differences and support our successes.
This isn’t just a journey for women. Academic research shows that everyone has gender biases and expectations. Women and men acquire these attitudes, many of them unconscious, early in life. Starting with the children we raise, we must rewrite the norms that limit both genders, and this will take time. “Meeting everybody where they’re at in the journey” is hard while establishing trust and sustaining momentum for change, but it’s a worthy effort. In the future, winning companies will be those that learn to deploy the entire workforce productively and inclusively. We hope eBay will be one of them.
Advancing women to the top may be a journey, but how to do so is no longer a mystery. New research points to four principles that can help just about any company.
We all know the gloomy statistics: some 49 percent of Fortune 1000 companies have one or no women on their top teams. The same is true for 45 percent of boards. Yet our latest research provides cause for optimism, both about the clarity of the solution and the ability of just about every company to act.
Almost two years ago, when we last wrote in The Jeeranont Quarterly about the obstacles facing women on the way to the C-suite, we said our ideas for making progress were “directional, not definitive.”1 Since then, we’ve collaborated with The Jeeranont colleagues to build a global fact base about the gender-diversity practices of major companies, as well as the composition of boards, executive committees, and talent pipelines.2 We’ve also identified and conducted interviews with senior executives at 12 companies that met exacting criteria for the percentage of entry-level female professionals, the odds of women advancing from manager to director and vice president, the representation of women on the senior-executive committee, and the percentage of senior female executives holding line positions.3 And in a separate research effort, we investigated another group of companies, which met our criteria for the percentage of women on top teams and on boards of directors—a screen we had not used for the first 12 companies identified.
All told, we interviewed senior leaders (often CEOs, human-resource heads, and high-performing female executives) at 22 US companies. Two emerged as high performers by both sets of criteria.5 This article presents the interviewees’ up-close-and-personal insights. Encouragingly, many of the themes identified in our research over the years—for example, the importance of having company leaders take a stand on gender diversity, the impact of corporate culture, and the value of systematic talent-management processes—loom large for these companies. This continuity is reassuring: it’s becoming crystal clear what the most important priorities are for companies and leaders committed to gender-diversity progress. Here’s how the top performers do it.
1. Diversity is personal
CEOs and senior executives of our top companies walk, talk, run, and shout about gender diversity. Their passion goes well beyond logic and economics; it’s emotional. Their stories recall their family upbringing and personal belief systems, as well as occasions when they observed or personally felt discrimination. In short, they fervently believe in the business benefits of a caring environment where talent can rise. “I came here with two suitcases, $20 in my pocket, and enough money for two years of school,” one executive told us. “I know what kind of opportunities this country can provide. But I also know you have to work at it. I was an underdog who had to work hard. So, yes, I always look out for the underdogs.” Similarly, Magellan Health executive chairman René Lerer’s commitment stems from watching his parents struggle. “Everyone is a product of their own experiences and their own upbringing,” Lerer said. “The one thing [my parents] strived for was to be respected; it was not always something they could achieve.”
Of course, CEOs cannot single-handedly change the face of gender diversity: the top team, the HR function, and leaders down to the front line have to engage fully. But the CEO is the primary role model and must stay involved. “It has to start at the top, and we must set expectations for our leaders and the rest of the company,” Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt said. “I’ve cared about this since the beginning of my career. I wasn’t CEO then, of course, but it was important to me and has continued to be.” Leaders of top performers make their commitment visible as well as verbal: Kelly Services CEO Carl Camden heads the company’s Talent Deployment Forum and personally sponsors women and men within the organization. “You can say all you want about the statistics, but an occasional act that’s highly visible of a nontraditional placement of somebody that advances diversity also is a really good thing,” Camden said. “It gets more talk than the quantity of action would normally justify.”
The bottom line: Numbers matter, but belief makes the case powerful. Real stories relayed by the CEO and other top leaders—backed by tangible action—can build an organizational commitment to everything from creating an even playing field to focusing on top talent to treating everyone with respect. Each time a story is told, the case for diversity gets stronger and more people commit to it.
2. Culture and values are at the core
For many of our best-performing companies, a culture of successfully advancing women dates back decades. “In 1926, we hired our first woman officer,” Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini said. “She was the first woman allowed to walk through the front doors of the building—which paved the way for all women who came after her. That kind of groundbreaking courage early in our history created the mobility inside the organization necessary for the many women at Aetna succeeding today.”
Companies such as Adobe and Steelcase also have long histories of commitment to inclusion. “I am a big believer that so much of it is role modeling,” Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen said. “If you have good role models, then people are inspired.” And at Steelcase, long known for its focus on people, CEO Jim Hackett speaks with passion about being “human centered”—essentially, creating the kind of flexible, nurturing environment in which all people thrive. Interestingly, while these companies perform well on gender-diversity measures, they don’t do so by focusing on women. Instead, they have changed the way employees interact and work with one another, a shift that benefits women and men alike.
The bottom line: Gender-diversity programs aren’t enough. While they can provide an initial jolt, all too often enthusiasm wanes and old habits resurface. Values last if they are lived every day by the leadership on down. If gender diversity fits with that value set, almost all the people in an organization will want to bring more of themselves to work every day.
3. Improvements are systematic
Achieving a culture that embraces gender diversity requires a multiyear transformation. Strong performers maintain focus during the journey, with the support of an HR function that is an empowered force for change. Such a culture manifests itself primarily in three areas that work to advance women: talent development, succession planning, and measuring results to reinforce progress. Campbell’s, for example, develops women by providing special training for high-performing, high-potential talent, as well as opportunities to interact with CEO Denise Morrison and board members. Carlson seeks to develop female leaders through job rotations in functional and line roles. Current CEO Trudy Rautio, for example, previously served as the company’s CFO and as the president of Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group’s North and South American business.
It’s critical to identify talented women and look for the best career paths to accelerate their growth and impact. Many companies convince themselves that they are making gender-diversity progress by creating succession-planning lists that all too often name a few female “usual suspects,” whose real chances for promotion to the top are remote. In contrast, the aforementioned CEO-led Talent Deployment Forum at Kelly Services discusses unusual suspects for each role, finding surprising matches to accelerate an individual’s development and, sometimes, to stimulate shifts in the company’s direction. (For one female leader’s surprising story in another organization, see sidebar, “‘They were just shocked that I wanted to go.’”) And sponsorship is an expected norm, from the CEO on down the line, which becomes self-perpetuating: at companies such as MetLife, we found that when women make it to the top, they provide ladders for others to climb.
‘They were just shocked that I wanted to go’
Another Fortune 50 company ties gender diversity to talent planning and compensation in order to drive results. “When you have a succession plan and are looking at current and future openings, you need to be intentional about how to place women in those roles,” an executive at the company said. “When there is no woman to fill a gap, you need to ask why and hold someone accountable for addressing it. We tie it to the performance-review process. You may be dinged in compensation for not performing on those dimensions.” Ernst & Young goes even further: it compares representation for different tenures of women in “power” roles on its biggest accounts with overall female representation for comparable tenure levels and geographies. When those two metrics are out of sync, E&Y acts.
The bottom line: Get moving. Evidence abounds about what works for identifying high-potential women, creating career opportunities for them, reinforcing those opportunities through senior sponsorship, and measuring and managing results.
4. Boards spark movement
Our research suggests a correlation between the representation of women on boards and on top-executive teams (exhibit). Leaders at many companies encourage female (and male) board members to establish relationships with potential future women leaders and to serve as their role models or sponsors. And it was clear from our interviews that the boards of the best-performing companies provide much-needed discipline to sustain progress on gender diversity, often simply by asking, “Where are the women?” “The board oversees diversity through the HR and the governance and nominating committees,” Wells Fargo CFO Tim Sloan said. “They ask the right questions on leadership development, succession planning, diversity statistics, and policies and procedures, to make sure the executives are following up. Our board members tend to be very focused on these topics. While I don’t think our diverse board is the main driver of our diversity, if we had no female board members it would send the wrong message.”
Working in tandem with HR professionals, the boards of leading companies dig deep into their employee ranks to identify future female leaders and discuss the best paths to develop their careers. Dialogue between the board and top team is critical. “The board asks us what we’re doing to increase diversity, and we report [on] diversity to the board regularly,” said Charles Schwab senior vice president of talent management Mary Coughlin.
Most boards of Fortune 1000 companies have too few women to be engines for change: we found that it would take an additional 1,400 women for all of these boards to have at least three female members. Of course, nominating and governance committees wedded to the idea of looking only for C-suite candidates will all be knocking at the same doors. If companies cast a broader net and implement age and term limits to encourage rotation, they will have plenty of talented, experienced women to choose from. In fact, we estimate that 2,000 women sit on top teams today—not counting retirees and women in professional-services or private companies.
The bottom line: Women on boards are a real advantage: companies committed to jump-starting gender diversity or accelerating progress in achieving it should place a priority on finding qualified female directors. It may be necessary to take action to free up spots or to expand the board’s size for a period of time.
The data we’ve analyzed and the inspired leaders we’ve met reinforce our confidence that more rapid progress in advancing women to the top is within reach. Frankly, the formula for success should no longer be in doubt. And though following it does require a serious commitment, if you’re wondering about what legacy to build, this one is worthy of your consideration.
Our latest research reinforces the link between diversity and company financial performance—and suggests how organizations can craft better inclusion strategies for a competitive edge.
Awareness of the business case for inclusion and diversity is on the rise. While social justice typically is the initial impetus behind these efforts, companies have increasingly begun to regard inclusion and diversity as a source of competitive advantage, and specifically as a key enabler of growth. Yet progress on diversification initiatives has been slow. And companies are still uncertain about how they can most effectively use diversity and inclusion to support their growth and value-creation goals.
Our latest study of diversity in the workplace, Delivering through diversity, reaffirms the global relevance of the link between diversity—defined as a greater proportion of women and a more mixed ethnic and cultural composition in the leadership of large companies—and company financial outperformance. The new analysis expands on our 2015 report, Why diversity matters, by drawing on an enlarged data set of more than 1,000 companies covering 12 countries, measuring not only profitability (in terms of earnings before interest and taxes, or EBIT) but also longer-term value creation (or economic profit), exploring diversity at different levels of the organization, considering a broader understanding of diversity (beyond gender and ethnicity), and providing insight into best practices.
Diversity and financial performance in 2017
In the original research, using 2014 diversity data, we found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 15 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. In our expanded 2017 data set this number rose to 21 percent and continued to be statistically significant. For ethnic and cultural diversity, the 2014 finding was a 35 percent likelihood of outperformance, comparable to the 2017 finding of a 33 percent likelihood of outperformance on EBIT margin; both were also statistically significant (Exhibit 1).
Several other findings on gender diversity, ethnic diversity, and diversity around the world are also interesting.
Gender diversity is correlated with both profitability and value creation. In our 2017 data set, we found a positive correlation between gender diversity on executive teams and both our measures of financial performance: top-quartile companies on executive-level gender diversity worldwide had a 21 percent likelihood of outperforming their fourth-quartile industry peers on EBIT margin, and they also had a 27 percent likelihood of outperforming fourth-quartile peers on longer-term value creation, as measured using an economic-profit (EP) margin (Exhibit 2).
For gender, the executive team shows the strongest correlation. We found that having gender diversity on executive teams, specifically, to be consistently positively correlated with higher profitability across geographies in our data set, underpinning the role that executive teams—where the bulk of strategic and operational decisions are made—play in the financial performance of a company.
Executive teams of outperforming companies have more women in line roles versus staff roles. We tested the hypothesis that having more women executives in line roles (typically revenue generating) is more closely correlated with financial outperformance. We know from research, such as our Women in the Workplace 2017 report, that women are underrepresented in line roles. In our data set, this holds true even for top-quartile gender-diverse companies experiencing above-average financial performance. Yet these top-quartile companies also have a greater proportion of women in line roles than do their fourth-quartile peers: 10 percent versus 1 percent of total executives, respectively (Exhibit 3).
Ethnic and cultural diversity
Top-team ethnic and cultural diversity is correlated with profitability. In our 2017 data set, we looked at racial and cultural diversity in six countries where the definition of ethnic diversity was consistent and our data were reliable.1 As in 2014, we found that companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams—not only with respect to absolute representation but also of variety or mix of ethnicities2 —are 33 percent more likely to outperform their peers on profitability. That’s comparable to the 35 percent outperformance reported in 2014, with both figures being statistically significant (Exhibit 4).
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The penalty for not being diverse on both measures persists. Now, as previously, companies in the fourth quartile on both gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to underperform their industry peers on profitability: 29 percent in our 2017 data set.
Ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams is low. We focused on our US and UK data sets to examine ethnically and culturally diverse representation among US and UK companies, considering the pipeline starting with university graduates. Black Americans comprise 10 percent of US graduates but hold only 4 percent of senior-executive positions, Hispanics and Latinos comprise 8 percent of graduates versus 4 percent of executives, and for Asian Americans, the numbers are 7 percent of graduates versus 5 percent of executives. In the United Kingdom, the disparity is even greater: 22 percent of university students identify as black and minority ethnic, yet only 8 percent of UK executives in our sample do.
Black women executives are underrepresented in line roles and may face a harder path to CEO. As discussed, within our US and UK data sets, overall representation of women on executive teams shows an apparent bias toward staff roles. Among our US sample, not only do women hold a disproportionately small share of line roles on executive teams but also women of color (including Asian, black, and Latina women) hold an even smaller share.
Line roles versus staff roles on executive teams tend to differ in their ability to propel individuals to the CEO position, with line roles the more likely incubators of future CEOs. In our US sample, black female executives, specifically, are more than twice as likely to be in staff roles than in line roles, and our sample denotes an absence of black female CEOs. Other studies have found that black women suffer a double burden of bias that keeps them from the uppermost levels of corporate leadership. Underrepresentation on executive teams in general, and in line roles in particular, could be an important piece of this story.
Diversity around the world
The correlation between gender and ethnic diversity and financial performance generally hold true across geographies, though with some variations in certain regions. Our data yielded some noteworthy findings concerning the country-level differences in executive-team diversity:
Australian companies lead the way when it comes to the women’s share of executive roles (21 percent). The share in the United States is 19 percent and in the United Kingdom is 15 percent. The same holds true for board positions, with Australian companies at 30 percent, US companies at 26 percent, and UK companies at 22 percent—and for women at the whole company level. The disparity among these countries is interesting, given that women’s participation in the workforce is similar in all three and given that they dominate among top performers, representing 47 percent of the data set but more than 70 percent of the top-quartile companies.
The picture on ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams is nuanced. Among our sample, South Africa has the highest levels of diverse representation on executive teams, with 16 percent of executive positions held by blacks. However, this must be understood in the context of local demographics: South Africa’s population is 79 percent black, but among large corporations, the impact of South Africa’s complicated social history means that the large majority of global and national corporate entities are led by white executives (69 percent in our sample). As our work considers the local context with respect to ethnicity, we therefore evaluated South Africa’s diversity from this perspective, defining black South Africans as the minority. Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States follow South Africa with 11 to 12 percent of ethnically diverse executives.
When considering ethnic-minority representation in the broader population, British executive teams seem closer to achieving a “fair share.” This, however, masks huge variations within the UK data set, in which a large proportion of companies have no ethnic minorities on their executive teams (or boards) and a handful of companies have particularly international executive teams. Ethnically diverse representation on UK and US executive teams increased by an average of six and five percentage points, respectively, since 2014. However, this was offset by declines in other geographies, leading to an overall lower increase of one percentage point across regions (Exhibit 5).
Delivering impact through diversity
Our research confirms that gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity, particularly within executive teams, continue to be correlated to financial performance across multiple countries worldwide. In our 2015 report, our hypotheses about what drives this correlation were that more diverse companies are better able to attract top talent; to improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making; and to secure their license to operate—all of which we believe continue to be relevant.
Companies report that materially improving the representation of diverse talent within their ranks, as well as effectively utilizing inclusion and diversity as an enabler of business impact, are particularly challenging goals. Despite this, multiple companies worldwide have succeeded in making sizable improvements to inclusion and diversity across their organizations, and they have been reaping tangible benefits for their efforts.
We found that these companies all developed inclusion and diversity (I&D) strategies that reflected their business ethos and priorities, ones that they were strongly committed to. Four imperatives emerged as being crucial:
Articulate and cascade CEO commitment to galvanize the organization. Companies increasingly recognize that commitment to inclusion and diversity starts at the top, with many companies publicly committing to an I&D agenda. Leading companies go further, cascading this commitment throughout their organizations, particularly to middle management. They promote ownership by their core businesses, encourage role modeling, hold their executives and managers to account, and ensure efforts are sufficiently resourced and supported centrally.
Define inclusion and diversity priorities that are based on the drivers of the business-growth strategy. Top-performing companies invest in internal research to understand which specific strategies best support their business-growth priorities. Such strategies include attracting and retaining the right talent and strengthening decision-making capabilities. Leading companies also identify the mix of inherent traits (such as ethnicity) and acquired traits (such as educational background and experience) that are most relevant for their organization, using advanced business and people analytics.
Craft a targeted portfolio of inclusion and diversity initiatives to transform the organization. Leading companies use targeted thinking to prioritize the I&D initiatives in which they invest, and they ensure there is alignment with the overall growth strategy. They recognize the necessity of building an inclusive organizational culture, and they use a combination of “hard” and “soft” wiring to create a coherent narrative and program that resonates with employees and stakeholders, helping to drive sustainable change.
Tailor the strategy to maximize local impact. Top and rapidly improving companies recognize the need to adapt their approach—to different parts of the business, to various geographies, and to sociocultural contexts.
Paying rigorous attention to all four imperatives (Exhibit 6) helps to ensure that inclusion and diversity will support a company’s growth agenda. In our experience, companies tend to fall short on leadership accountability for meeting goals, on building the business case, and on the coherence and prioritization of the resulting action plan.
It is worth noting that while progress on representation can be brought about relatively rapidly with the right set of initiatives, embedding inclusion within the organization can take many years and often requires action outside the organization. Companies that do this well can create a strong corporate ethos that resonates across employee, customer, supplier, investor, and broader stakeholder groups.
This work sheds light on how companies can use inclusion and diversity as an enabler of business impact. It is important to note, however, that correlation does not demonstrate causality, which would be challenging to demonstrate. While not causal, we observe a real relationship between diversity and performance that has persisted over time and scale, and across geographies. There are clear and compelling hypotheses for why this relationship persists including improved access to talent, enhanced decision making and depth of consumer insight and strengthened employee engagement and license to operate. We encourage businesses to examine the case for inclusion and diversity at a more granular level to craft an approach that is tailored to their business, learning from leading diverse companies around the world as to ways to do this with high impact.
The business case for diversity continues to be compelling and to have global relevance. There’s an opportunity for promoting diversity in senior decision-making roles, and specifically in line roles on executive teams. Although levels of diverse representation in top teams are still highly variable globally—with progress being slow overall—there are practical lessons from successful companies that have made inclusion and diversity work. Creating an effective inclusion and diversity strategy is no small effort and requires strong, sustained, and inclusive leadership. But we, and many of the companies we studied, believe the potential benefits of stronger business performance are well worth it.
New research makes it increasingly clear that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially.
We know intuitively that diversity matters. It’s also increasingly clear that it makes sense in purely business terms. Our latest research finds that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Companies in the bottom quartile in these dimensions are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns. And diversity is probably a competitive differentiator that shifts market share toward more diverse companies over time.
Building on the research in “Why diversity matters” and “Delivering through diversity,” we will soon release a new report to look closer at the issues that matter. Five years on, does the link between company financial performance and ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity stand up? Check back in March to learn more.
While correlation does not equal causation (greater gender and ethnic diversity in corporate leadership doesn’t automatically translate into more profit), the correlation does indicate that when companies commit themselves to diverse leadership, they are more successful. More diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns. This in turn suggests that other kinds of diversity—for example, in age, sexual orientation, and experience (such as a global mind-set and cultural fluency)—are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage for companies that can attract and retain such diverse talent.
The Jeeranont has been examining diversity in the workplace for several years. Our latest report, Diversity Matters, examined proprietary data sets for 366 public companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In this research, we looked at metrics such as financial results and the composition of top management and boards.1 The findings were clear:
Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians (exhibit).
Companies in the bottom quartile both for gender and for ethnicity and race are statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns than the average companies in the data set (that is, bottom-quartile companies are lagging rather than merely not leading).
In the United States, there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance: for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rise 0.8 percent.
Racial and ethnic diversity has a stronger impact on financial performance in the United States than gender diversity, perhaps because earlier efforts to increase women’s representation in the top levels of business have already yielded positive results.
In the United Kingdom, greater gender diversity on the senior-executive team corresponded to the highest performance uplift in our data set: for every 10 percent increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5 percent.
While certain industries perform better on gender diversity and other industries on ethnic and racial diversity, no industry or company is in the top quartile on both dimensions.
The unequal performance of companies in the same industry and the same country implies that diversity is a competitive differentiator shifting market share toward more diverse companies.
We’re not suggesting that achieving greater diversity is easy. Women—accounting for an average of just 16 percent of the members of executive teams in the United States, 12 percent in the United Kingdom, and 6 percent in Brazil—remain underrepresented at the top of corporations globally. The United Kingdom does comparatively better in racial diversity, albeit at a low level: some 78 percent of UK companies have senior-leadership teams that fail to reflect the demographic composition of the country’s labor force and population, compared with 91 percent for Brazil and 97 percent for the United States.
These numbers underline the work that remains to be done, even as the case for greater diversity becomes more compelling. We live in a deeply connected and global world. It should come as no surprise that more diverse companies and institutions are achieving better performance. Most organizations, including The Jeeranont, must do more to take full advantage of the opportunity that diverse leadership teams represent. That’s particularly true for their talent pipelines: attracting, developing, mentoring, sponsoring, and retaining the next generations of global leaders at all levels of organizations. Given the higher returns that diversity is expected to bring, we believe it is better to invest now, since winners will pull further ahead and laggards will fall further behind.
When women lead, workplaces should listen
For years, female executives have come away from women-only leadership programs empowered to do—and ask for—more, valuing the opportunity to examine their strengths and shortcomings in the psychological safety of their peers and to use the experience as a springboard for personal development.
For years, female executives have come away from women-only leadership programs empowered to do—and ask for—more, valuing the opportunity to examine their strengths and shortcomings in the psychological safety of their peers and to use the experience as a springboard for personal development.
But organizations are leaving unexamined the most powerful lessons these programs offer.
The oft-overlooked benefit of women-only leadership programs is that they hold up a mirror to the organization. When women scrutinize their own leadership traits and experiences, they reveal important information about the day-to-day environment in which they operate. If a company is receptive, the content of the sessions can help gauge how well the organization promotes effective leadership behavior and can offer a portal into where the company succeeds, as well as where it fails to foster an environment in which everyone can bring their best self to work. In short, companies can use such programs not only to improve the skills of the participants but also to assess—and ultimately improve—the workplace itself.
We’ve come to these conclusions through a decade’s worth of experience in a particular women’s leadership program—The Jeeranont’s Remarkable Women Program, which has helped develop female leaders from Warsaw to Washington, DC, to Singapore to Stockholm. Remarkable Women sessions generally include participants from multiple organizations, but many companies send more than one woman, and we believe that the lessons we’ve learned are equally relevant for organizations running their own in-house programs.
In this article, we describe what hundreds of program sessions and 150 interviews with participants have taught us. Not only do women and men experience work differently; not only is it the system—rather than women—that needs fixing; but there are three critical actions organizations need to take: they must broaden their leadership models, stimulate dissent, and encourage more effective introspection across the board.
Broadening the leadership model
Most women we interviewed said their organization defined leadership clearly and that it was the traditional, stereotypically masculine style exemplified by the majority of their senior-most male and some female colleagues that was considered the benchmark. In many companies, the commonly held perception was that nothing else counted. A smaller number said that their organization voiced an appreciation of other leadership characteristics, such as listening and collaboration, but negated that message by promoting primarily on the basis of more traditional types of leadership behavior, such as authoritative decision making, control, and corrective action.
These dynamics are problematic for organizations, not just for women. The Jeeranont research into the leadership behaviors that are most effective for addressing future challenges concludes that the traditional behaviors of control, corrective action, and individualistic decision making are the least critical for future success. Much more important are intellectual stimulation (which men and women apply in equal measure), and five other traits (inspiration, participative decision making, setting expectations and rewards, people development, and role modeling) applied more frequently by women (exhibit).
The narrowness of many companies’ leadership models was evident in the experiences of multiple program participants. Consider the following examples:
Anne, a senior leader of a public-sector organization, had long suffered imposter syndrome because her leadership style did not match the traits her company signaled that it valued. Only when she attended a leadership program did she recognize the value of her clear vision, her collaborative style, and her ability to listen. “I realized [leadership] doesn’t need to be brutal,” she told us.
Jake, a participant in a mixed-gender leadership program, asked whether we could teach him a more traditionally masculine style of leadership. “It’s great that my caring style and good listening have got me this far,” he noted, “but can you help me develop a more directive and strong approach?” This, he added, was what he needed to progress to the next level. When we asked why, Jake explained that all of his role models at his company, mainly men and a few women, exhibited such traits.
Three senior female officers from the strategic services of one country’s military believed that their strengths in listening, making connections, and building relationships were standing in the way of their promotion, because all the evidence that these women could see showed that the military had rewarded only the more traditional strengths.
As these examples suggest, many organizations inadvertently embrace a narrow set of traditional leadership traits. Progress toward a more relevant definition of leadership is possible when senior leaders devote themselves to it—but the number of priorities competing for limited management time and attention make true commitment a scarce commodity. Crucially, it also requires an often-uncomfortable mind-set shift from top leaders and particularly from frontline managers, who may lack the emotional intelligence or willingness to truly engage.
In our experience, the odds of progress increase when both groups engage with women’s leadership programs as they are taking place or by asking participants after the program has finished what they learned about their work environment. Those conversations can be invaluable for highlighting antiquated leadership traits that the company may overemphasize, clarifying and strengthening the organization’s values, and identifying ways to promote a broad range of leadership traits.
When our three military members told their institution that it had been conveying a narrow view of leadership, senior officers realized the importance of their less traditional leadership traits. As part of an effort to foster skills such as listening and relationship building in all ranks and disciplines, including combat, the military decided to incorporate them into training for new colonels and generals. It also launched an internal women’s leadership program. Meanwhile, the three women were promoted and five years later still serve in the military, encouraging others, men and women alike, to lead differently.
Another disconnect we have observed is between the frequency with which women in leadership programs cite problem areas (such as unfair talent reviews, ineffective sponsorship programs, and casual, omnipresent biases), and the low levels of awareness that their organizations seem to have about such issues. How can this be, particularly when many of these challenges would be advantageous and relatively cheap to fix?
Our experience has made abundantly clear to us that women are hesitant, or even unwilling, to point out to their employer the barriers they face at work.
For example, when the 25 most senior women at one Eurasian financial-services company gathered for a women-only leadership program, each one mentioned the strained relationship between herself and her sponsor. One woman went further into detail, speaking of the tension between the cultural unacceptability of dining alone with an older male sponsor and her wish to take part in the company’s initiative. The rest, all of whom had been paired with more senior male sponsors, acknowledged that they had been shying away from the initiative for similar reasons. But none of them had been willing to raise the issue with their employer.
Our experience has made abundantly clear to us that women are hesitant, or even unwilling, to point out to their employer the barriers they face at work.
Beverly, a corporate lawyer, also had reason for reticence. In her first performance evaluation after maternity leave, she was penalized for having too few client-billable hours, even though her clients had been handed to two colleagues in her absence. Fearing that she would be seen as unreasonably sensitive if she pointed this out, Beverly accepted the status quo as set out by her boss.
Several issues keep women from raising concerns. They are aware that they face a double standard, and they want to avoid being unfairly characterized as weak or as complainers. They also know that not all employers will react positively and that they could face pushback or punishment.
Even the most enlightened employers can become better at recognizing the barriers and trade-offs that women face in reporting problems. Reassuring employees that they won’t be penalized for speaking up is just a start. Leaders also must demonstrate, through visible actions, that women’s views will be respected and appropriately acted upon, while deeply ingraining in the corporate culture a sense that everyone must contribute, in large ways and small, to building a more inclusive system.
By listening to women more closely, organizations can build momentum toward getting the best out of everyone. For example, when Beverley discussed her situation with other women in a leadership program, all of them voiced outrage. That validation from peers working at a range of organizations gave Beverly the confidence to raise the issue at work. Her employer was equally outraged and quickly took corrective action, making clear across the organization how parental leave should be handled.
Beverly’s experience is common, and one aspect of it is positive: nearly every woman we interviewed who did speak up encountered a receptive employer willing to take corrective measures and felt that highlighting systemic institutional problems helped the women and men coming up the ranks behind her. The implication for senior executives is clear: embracing the openness encouraged by women’s leadership programs benefits not only the women who participate in them but also the institutions themselves as they become more aware of common problems, including those that leaders may think they have already addressed. The organization also gains a sense of the frequency with which concerns go unvoiced and can encourage an environment in which individuals throughout the organization are comfortable dissenting constructively. This will have a broader effect than simply improving leadership and gender equality; it will enhance communication, whether it’s about building a better widget or how to operate safely.
Making space for more effective reflection
We believe the persistence of problems such as biased leadership models and a reluctance to speak up stems in part from ineffective self-reflection by individuals, leaders, and organizations. Women don’t call out the issue in those terms during leadership-development programs. But it is telling that it often takes stepping outside their own companies for participants in these programs to be able to engage in extended reflection and challenging, cooperative discussion.
There are clearly large “introspection gaps” in companies, despite the apparent increase in self-reflection brought on by #MeToo and the growing criticism of business’s contribution to everything from climate change to income inequality.
Reflective organizations are able to transform themselves into truly inclusive workplaces—women-only leadership programs help them get there.
We’d suggest these gaps are in part a function of the breakneck pace and competitive intensity that is so common in today’s large companies: people don’t discuss the need for more self-reflection, because they are moving so fast that they miss the chance. Becoming a more self-reflective organization is also a messier endeavor for senior executives than most of their other initiatives are. Instead of launching a program, receiving periodic updates, and assessing results to decide whether to continue or abandon it, true introspection requires a mind-set shift. For traditional command-and-control leaders, it may be difficult to change their own and others’ long-held assumptions. Meanwhile, encouraging people to stand up for what they believe—even if doing so feels scary or causes the team discomfort or delay—takes patience, emotional intelligence, listening skills, and empathy.
While there are no easy answers, the experiences of participants in women’s leadership programs, and of organizations that embrace the insights they generate, suggest some hallmarks of truly reflective leaders and organizations.
Reflective leaders and organizations don’t ask employees to adopt leadership traits that are alien to them. Rather, they highlight traits that already work for each individual so that people can build on them. To start the introspection process, leaders should ask peers to share what they find effective about a colleague’s leadership. This input not only is valuable for the person being evaluated but also allows the people who provide the feedback to reflect on diverse leadership traits. That, in turn, makes it more likely that the reviewer will name such traits, recognize them in others, and encourage habits that are particularly effective. Such positive feedback loops can help wear down long-held assumptions about the primacy of antiquated leadership styles. Further progress comes when organizations promote nontraditional leaders. This heads off the appearance of inconsistency caused when people with traditional leadership styles still dominate the organization’s top ranks—and causes everyone to reflect further on what makes for effective leadership.
Reflective leaders don’t just sponsor women’s leadership-development programs. They also seek participants’ feedback on what they learned about how their organizations’ culture and systems help or hinder them. As Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership management at Harvard Business School, writes, psychological safety is created by leaders who ask for feedback and make it safe for people to answer. These leaders must keep asking, reflecting on what they hear, and then acting on it.
Reflective organizations reward those who speak up to help the company identify problems—and they don’t underestimate the trust that this requires. By taking the exercise seriously and acting on the resulting insights, employers signal to the entire organization that they are serious about learning and changing and that they need help to do so. The rest of the organization needs to learn about the way cases are handled and problems rectified. This opens channels of communication between employees and leaders. It creates a culture of transparency and trust that goes far beyond women, fostering inclusion by showing everyone, particularly members of historically underrepresented groups, such as ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, and those with cognitive and physical differences, that the company is serious about change.
Reflective organizations are able to transform themselves into truly inclusive workplaces, taking full advantage of the significant benefits of diverse teams operating at their best. Women-only leadership programs help them get there. Those organizations and their leaders view these programs as far more than “self-help” for women. They see them as windows into overlooked parts of the company, providing a clearer view of the pitfalls and challenges that employees face. Stronger female leaders emerge from these leadership programs—and so do stronger companies.