Advancing female talent: the best place to start is at the beginning
If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from the pandemic, it’s that we cannot solve unpredictable challenges without diverse leadership. We need different skillsets to bring creative and agile thinking, which we don’t get by pursuing traditional methods of talent management.
As well as competitive edge and resilience, a diverse workforce is pivotal for success on many levels, bringing greater innovation, better management of risk and improved business performance.
Along with being the right thing to do, diversity offers a strategic advantage – especially at leadership level.
It is critical for businesses to look at the typical challenges women face, and clear the path for talented female leaders to get to the top.
Here are three ways you can support female talent at the earliest career stages.
Firstly, define an organisation-wide talent management strategy. Formulate clear performance criteria to describe knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviours of value to the business. Evaluate female talent against them.
Maintain focus on senior females who provide important role models, and extend your diversity efforts, policies and budget to include entry-level women.
For those women identified as having potential, set out a clear structure and framework for development including:
Training and development in business and leadership skills
Regular discussions with line managers including meaningful, career-advancing feedback on strengths and development opportunities
Internal mentoring to support career trajectory and to advise on the dynamics of relationships within the organisation
A plan for exposure to key areas of the business (finance, sales, operations marketing…) and to different senior leaders to broaden experiences.
Secondly, make opportunities for visibility. Help female talent understand early that relationships matter for career growth. Provide access to leadership-level networking opportunities to help women make new connections – senior management need to see what they’re capable of, how they think, communicate and contribute. They need to be top of mind when new roles or high-visibility projects open up. Provide follow-up opportunities for feedback of successful projects with the leadership team. Internally, ensure each female talent is assigned an executive-level sponsor. Her sponsor will advocate for her publicly, facilitate introductions, recommend opportunities and projects, and make invitations into rooms where decisions are made.
Thirdly, build skills, strategies and behaviours. Many women don’t proactively look for information or people that might be useful for their futures. This can be challenging for entry-level women in big companies, where relationships and visibility are equally, if not more important, than excellence.
To be competitive, visible and to decisively create opportunities for senior people to see them, women need to be self-confident and at the top of their game. Use coaching and discussion to tackle typical blockers to success and help build behaviours and strategies for advancement. Provide early support to help women in learning core skills, from knowing themselves and understanding their strengths and ambitions, to taking responsibility for their development and building confidence, reputation and visibility. Support women in moving forwards and seeing new opportunities as a chance to learn rather than a risk they feel they’re not ready for. When integrated early these skills will enable women to own their progress and develop sustainable behaviours that will serve them throughout their careers.
Provide a platform for facilitated group discussions with other women in the organisation. It offers an opportunity to have real conversations about real issues, introduces perspectives and learnings from women in similar contexts and provides additional support.
However, be aware that for lasting change the organisational ecosystem must also evolve.
As the saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Work on making diversity part of your culture. Every employee needs to know he or she is there on merit, but survival of the fittest is not a meritocracy. It favours the dominant group and as men are often the dominant group, they will experience far more opportunities than women to develop their careers. Underline the importance to your organisation of creating a workplace with equitable opportunities based on value to the business. Aim to develop a culture that embraces diversity by allowing for flexible, sustainable working environments for everyone. As with any important initiative, make diversity a key part of your communication to employees and use it as a lever to strengthen motivation and engagement.
Hold yourself personally accountable and show your beliefs through your actions. This shouldn’t be a conversation led by HR – it’s a strategic priority and should be your responsibility and that of your leadership team. Get diversity on the agenda and get personally involved in initiatives within your organisation. Participate in focus groups and discussions, listen to what is needed, and share what you’ve learnt from it in your employee communications. Bring senior women and men into the conversation – men must be a part of this for organisational change to happen. Ensure that your senior level team members are equipped with the skill sets and knowledge to help build the diverse and inclusive culture that you’re looking for. Set goals with metrics to evaluate what’s working and what’s not.
This approach will require patience and perseverance. It’s not about one single initiative but a shift of the organisational culture and ecosystem for the better.
Female talent needs to be nurtured at every level of your organisation, not just the top.
This article was first published in CEO Today.