5 tactics to cultivate a pipeline of qualified female executives

16 May 2016 Consultancy.uk 7 min. read

From the glass ceiling to the glass cliff, the advancement of women to senior management positions is an issue that has long been dissected, discussed and debated.

After slowly growing for decades, today the number of top women in the C-suites of America’s biggest corporations has stalled and remains substantially lower than the number of men. According to the 2015 CEO Success study by Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business, just 10 women were among the 359 incoming CEOs at the world’s 2,500 largest companies in 2015. At 2.8 percent, it was the lowest share since 2011.

Some strides are being made by the women who make it to the corner office. From 2004 to 2015, female CEOs were 28 percent more likely to be forced out than male CEOs. But in 2015, for the first time, the difference between men and women on this issue was not statistically significant. As someone with a real passion for advancing women in business, I find this encouraging.

If we want more women to rise through the ranks, we require a stronger pipeline of female talent behind the CEO. The reality is that despite the many programs created to facilitate the promotion of female leaders from the inside, women continue to be more likely than men to enter the CEO role when they are hired from the outside. From 2004 to 2015, 32 percent of women CEOs have been outsiders, compared with 23 percent of men.

Share of incoming women CEOs

There are many factors contributing to the absence of women in top positions, but together both companies and women themselves can help to close the leadership gap and fill the pipeline with female talent. Let’s examine approaches from each side of the issue.

Companies Building the Pipeline:
Companies looking to ensure they cultivate a robust pipeline of qualified women within their management ranks must focus on a variety of tactics:

1. Start at the top
Senior leaders set the tone. They model the values that will be adopted by the company as a whole. That’s why keeping talented women in the pipeline should be at the top of the agenda for CEOs and corporate board executives. Top leaders must lead by example with more diversity in their boardrooms and among the ranks of their senior leaders. Studies have shown that companies with higher percentages of women on their boards tend to have a higher-than-average number of women corporate officers.

2. Don’t forget the informal elements
Today, many companies have implemented formal programs designed to attract and retain women talent. Though the formal programs and announcements are important, initiatives must also be reinforced informally to affect lasting change. Simple gestures, such as publicly recognising the contributions of female leaders in your organisation during a meeting, can make a big difference.

Incoming and outgoing CEOs

3. Investigate what you’re doing well
Are women excelling in certain departments more than in others? Investigate what those departments are doing that others are not. At PwC, 50 percent of graduate hires are women but only 20 percent of network executive teams’ leadership are women. Whereas at PwC in Australia, females make up 40 percent of the board of partners. Determining what Australia is doing right gives us real insight into how we can bridge that gap in other sites.

4. Monitor the pipeline
The pipeline must be monitored consistently, starting at the entry level and going all the way to the leadership level. The entry level element is key because intervening late doesn’t work. Employees often leave companies when they are passed over for promotions. The likelihood that some organisations aren’t recognising the potential of internal women executives may cause them to be receptive to recruitment efforts for outside CEO positions.

5. Be open to hiring from the outside
It’s not hard to find women in entry and middle management levels. Yet far fewer are found at the top of the chain. While building a pipeline of women leaders from entry level up the ladder, companies should also be open to hiring experienced women from the outside to fill more senior roles.

Women in the Pipeline:
Efforts made by companies are only one piece of the puzzle. Women must also work to advance themselves in the workplace. Here are the top tips I offer to the women I mentor:

1. Proactively plan your path and flex along the way
You won’t find yourself in the C-suite by chance. Creating a plan of action for your own future career will help you focus on where you are heading and on acquiring the skills necessary to succeed. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish, then ask your employer what it takes to get there. Don’t think of a career path as a one-way road from which you can never divert. Instead, be flexible and regularly reassess your plan to see if you’re still on the best route.

Incoming women CEOs by industry

2. Ask confidently for what you need
Once you’ve determined your plan, ask for what you need to gain wider and broader experience within the business. Don’t assume that the decision makers know that you want an international assignment or to rotate in a role outside of your department. Be specific and direct in your request. Confidence makes all the difference. If the company is not willing to meet your needs, don’t be afraid to move.

3. Have an attitude of “I want to be here”
What will it take for you to want to stay and grow with the company? When you want something, you act in a different way. Want goes beyond basic physical needs and taps into the inner drive that motivates us to stay the course. Recognise that you don’t “need” this particular position and can find other jobs, but decide that you want to be right where you are. It’s a simple exercise that will change your attitude around your career.

4. Ask for the best mentors and sponsors?—?and use them
It’s no secret that mentors and sponsors play an important role in advocating for and facilitating career moves for recipients looking to get ahead. However, it’s not enough to have powerful players on your bench. Put them to work on your behalf.

5. Never lose who you really are
Companies want authentic leaders who they can trust. Unfortunately, many women feel they have to be one person at work and someone else at home. That’s too hard to sustain over the long term. Instead, focus on showcasing your strengths and your values while working on your development areas. By owning who you are, you will be better able to relate to and inspire others.

An article from DeAnne Aguirre, Senior Vice President at Strategy&, based in Based in San Francisco.