Closing The C-Suite Gender Divide

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Female directors can change the gender balance in the leadership ranks by taking a proactive, intentional sponsor role.

Years ago, as a senior executive in a skin care division of a major Fortune 500 company, I had a profound management experience. My job included permitting up-and-coming professionals to shadow me. In fulfilling that duty, one young man accompanied me to a meeting with the company’s CEO. After the meeting, the mentee brazenly asked if he could shadow the CEO. While others may have dismissed the improbable request, I was so impressed that he asked, I agreed to set it up.

Later, after some contemplation (and harboring no ill-will to the mentee), I was struck by an overwhelming insight: it was very unlikely that a young woman would have made the same request.

Flash forward five years and increasingly, I see women going for the gusto. They are taking charge of their career trajectory. They are aspiring to and achieving success in management positions. They are taking over positions traditionally held by men.

As I applaud these achievements, I’m also reminded that I have a responsibility to champion gender equity in leadership. To this day, I take an active role sponsoring aspiring women who have the potential to perform at the highest level. Different than a supervisor or mentor, a workplace sponsor is someone with influence who advocates for a woman’s skills, successes and career aspirations within the organization.

Women leaders can similarly hasten progress by taking on a sponsor role with up-and-coming women executives. The challenge to establishing a workplace sponsor relationship is identifying the right person and setting the right course. Here are five tips for women leaders to follow in identifying and sponsoring women:

1. Turn on your sponsor radar.  Women leaders should create a network of trusted sources who can identify rising stars from diverse areas of the company, including internal managers, c-suite execs and HR managers. They should also ask for feedback and written reviews and interview the best and most eager candidates. Also, since the idea of having a sponsor might be a new concept to less experienced women, the leader should be prepared to describe what workplace sponsorship is and how it works.

2. Set realistic, long-term timelines. Many ambitious professionals seek to move fast without laying a firm foundation. A recent survey of millennials by the career platform The Muse found 58% plan to change jobs this year alone. At the first encounter with a sponsored professional, agree on a time commitment, such as a five-year time frame, with success milestones to achieve along the way.

3. Support from the back, rather than pulling from the front. According to a 2019 KPMG and Boston College study, even though senior-level men greatly outnumber women in most organizations, the majority of most women seek to move up to those roles (see graphic). Historically, women have endured stereotypes and biases that hold them back. Ultimately, the best way to sponsor any developing leader is to let their ambitions, rather than yours, serve as the blueprint. Women should be encouraged to express their goals with firm, professional diplomacy.

4. Seek bottom-line responsibility and outcomes for sponsored professionals. Women who can navigate the nuances of profit and loss (P&L) are best suited to run or advise the company down the road. I’m currently serving as chairman of the board for the women executive group C200, a powerful community of some of most successful women in business aiming to increase women leadership. P&L responsibility is a requirement to become a member.

5. Encourage purpose in addition to position. When I was earning a Presidents and Key Executives MBA Degree at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School in Malibu, CA, I worked with multiple senior-level executives who opened my eyes to many facets of business including many CEO-level challenges. The most significant benefit I discovered was identifying a sense of purpose – to inspire innovation and elevate others to achieve goals they did not think possible.

Women leaders, like their male counterparts, wear many hats, and sponsorship roles offer them the opportunity to use their skills, relationships and insights to advance both the company and promising individuals. As I look at the next chapter in my own career, I’m committed to looking for the next female professional ready to move up.

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