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We Need More Women Leaders… Now What?

The statistics are sobering. Women hold 50.6 percent of management and professional positions, yet represent just 15.4 percent of Fortune …

The statistics are sobering. Women hold 50.6 percent of management and professional positions, yet represent just 15.4 percent of Fortune 500 officers and only 2.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. At a time when global competition is intensifying the need for businesses to fully leverage all available talent, the numbers suggest a worrisome disconnect: Women are now well represented in the corporate workforce but simply aren’t advancing to the upper echelons.

The good news? There are steps business leaders can take to further the development of talented women, says Reshmi Paul, a consultant at RHR International, which cosponsored a CEO roundtable discussion exploring the issue. “For example, one of the critical dimensions is leadership expectations-what you expect from your senior team,” she explains. “You should hold both men and women leaders to the same performance standards, but at the same time show curios ity about and acceptance of the different ways individuals can lead-differently from you in particular, but also from one another.”

Seemingly straightforward, that type of meritocracy was far from what some of the women roundtable participants experienced early in their careers. For example, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, now chair of Carlson Companies, had no trouble landing a job as a securities analyst at Paine Weber as a woman, but the firm asked that she sign her recommendations with the gender ambiguous “M.C. Nelson.”

“The thinking was that no one would buy stock recommended by a woman,” Nelson recounts. Grateful for the opportunity, it never occurred to her to protest. And she got the last laugh-Nelson credits Paine Weber’s desire to hide her first pregnancy from clients and coworkers for the firm’s decision to move her into a private office around the corner and upstairs. “The minute I told them I was expecting, there was a huge meeting about how they were going to deal with this and that’s what they came up with,” she says.

For Marsha Evans, the U.S. Navy didn’t even offer the pretense of gender equality. “The last remaining gender discrimination on the federal statutes [for the military] was not rescinded until 1993,” points out Evans, who joined the Navy at a time when women accounted for only 2 percent of its ranks and retired with the rank of rear admiral. “It’s hard to have a meritocracy when because of your gender you cannot serve in the frontline fighting forces and every day you’re reminded that you’re a second-class citizen because you’re not good enough or built right.” 

Making Meritocracies

Charged with leading a cultural change in the Navy after the Tail-hook scandal made addressing its gender issues a national priority, Evans emerged with some key learnings about effective approaches. Some necessary changes-such as laws that limited a woman’s ability to fill certain positions-were unique to the Navy. Others were more universal.

“You’ve got to reexamine your assumptions about what it takes to be successful in a particular position,” she notes. “If you’re too rigid, you may have to wait 10, 20 or even 50 years before you will see women and in some cases minorities fill those positions.”

The Navy also had to drive the cultural change home through enforcement. “We had to actually remove some people when they violated the newly stated norms,” reports Evans. “It wasn’t until we fired high-profile people-admiral-level people-in very public ways that people appreciated that this was not an experiment. It was the way the Navy was going to be.”

The need to take a hard line with detractors is equally applicable when undergoing a cultural change in a corporate environment, asserts Jerre Stead, CEO of IHS. “You’ve got to create an environment for embracing change,” he says. “It’s critical that those who choose not to play the game be [removed],” he says. “I always treat them with dignity and respect, but I help them find careers elsewhere because you cannot allow blockers on any subject involving values.”


Based on recent research drawing on the experiences of 65 senior women, RHR International’s Reshmi Paul suggests four ways CEOs can help develop women leaders.

EQUALIZE EXPECTATIONS. Holding male and female leaders to the same performance standards means just that, says Paul. “For CEOs to give special attention to women on their senior teams can be problematic,” says Paul. “Although it’s well-intentioned, it undermines her in the eyes of her peers and creates envy.”

BRING WOMEN ON BOARD. “Helping women leaders find opportunities to sit on boards of other companies or organizations gives your leaders an opportunity to see different businesses and points of view and to bring that knowledge back into your organization,” says Paul.

PROMOTE P&L POSTS. “Early on in women’s careers, you need to emphasize the importance of moving into operating roles,” says Paul, “and to provide the support required-advice, mentoring, networking-to make sure they are successful in them.”

ASK, DON’T ASSUME. “It is often counterintuitive how much and when women want to accelerate their careers,” says Paul. “You cannot assume that just because a woman has three kids and a new baby that she wants to slow down.” 

P&L and the Pipeline

Finding ways to ensure that women get the experience they need to qualify for top spots is another way CEOs can address the advancement issue, notes Paulett Eberhart, CEO of Invensys Process Systems, who says companies need to steer talented women into posts where they get profit and loss positions. “When someone says, ��We’ve just promoted a woman to an officer position,’ I always ask, ��Is it a support role or an operating role? You only get half a point for a functional role.’ Women need support to make that leap over to the operational side and be positioned to become CEOs.”

The importance of P&L experience can be easily overlooked by an executive moving smoothly up the ranks at a company. Often, it isn’t until that individual hits a roadblock- and it’s too late-that the missing element comes to light. “It’s important to take an active role at different points in someone’s career to make sure they get the experience they need to realize their potential,” says Paul, who adds that the earlier an operational experience can be introduced, the better.

Carlson Companies integrated that concept into the company’s succession planning program. “We took a step back and started identifying what it was that was missing in someone’s skill set-male or female-and arranging for the training and experience they needed,” says Nelson. “We provided coaching, mentoring, financial training so that they were ready.” Today, the executive ranks at Carlson companies, which had only two women executives when Nelson joined the family-owned firm, are 49 percent female.

A sister issue to getting women into the P&L pipeline is that women are sometimes passed over for such positions because of assumptions about what they may or may not want at various points in their careers or personal lives. “We recently appointed a woman as president of Weight Watchers International,” notes David Kirchhoff, CEO of Weight Watchers International. “In the back of my mind was the concern that because she had young kids she wouldn’t want to take on that role given the international travel it entails. But she did. So I think the important point is not being afraid to ask when an important role comes up.”

“Don’t assume anything about how much a woman leader is willing to invest to accelerate her career,” agrees Paul, whose research involving interviewing 65 senior level women suggests that how much and when a woman wants to focus on her career is often counterintuitive. “Don’t assume, ask-which is what you would do with your male direct reports as well.”

Finding Flexibility

At the same time, companies truly dedicated to attracting, retaining and developing the best talent will also need to find ways to meet the needs of executives-male and female- who want or need flexibility. CEOs who have given new fathers flexible work schedules suggest “mommy track” issues may fade away as more men take advantage of the option.

“We tend to think of this as a women’s issue, but the next generation coming up may not define it that same way,” points out Ame Wadler, chief management officer of MWW Group. “People were shocked when two of my male employees asked for a flexible schedule-and even more shocked that they got it-which they would not have been with a woman. But stepping out has to be something an organization allows for people and not for gender. And women will be more comfortable with their own choices when they see more men take advantage of these opportunities.”

Better still, perhaps, is when the CEO does so. Ilene Gordon, now CEO of Alcan Packaging, was leading a $1 billion global business when her daughter fell down a flight of stairs and was seriously injured. Gordon essentially moved into the hospital and told her team that she would be working from there and communicating by phone until her daughter was out of surgery and recovering. “They used to call me ��Charlie,’ like the guy from Charlie’s Angels who ran the team by phone,” she recounts. “But we all did what we needed to do and, as a result, I gained credibility as a leader who understood that sometimes you need to have balance.”

Choosing, however, is still seen as an issue by many women executives. “For a lot of women my age, having to choose between family and career is still very much the big decision at the end of the day,” asserts Clarice Kennedy, CEO of CCN. “Companies need to stop forcing them to make that decision.”

Kennedy walks that talk. When CCN’s comptroller had her first child, she submitted a complicated and much-agonized-over proposal for working partly from home. Kennedy came back to her with a different idea; work at home, period. The comptroller was thrilled- as were other pregnant employees. “We have the technology, we need to stop talking about it and just do it,” says Kennedy.

Ultimately, addressing the need for flexibility will be a crucial element to building a winning team, notes Eberhart. “In order to get the best talent out there on a global basis, you have to really open your own mind about where you look for it and about being flexible to meet their needs,” she notes. “It may be about individuals in the first part of their career deciding to have children or about those of us in the phase of caring for aging parents, which can have just as big an impact.”

The desire to tap a diverse and global talent pool will only accelerate the need for CEOs to work harder at redefining what they look for in employees-male and female, adds Paul. “Leaders need to be more future-looking and say, ��Given what we’re seeing in the world environment and the business environment, what will leadership roles require today?” she says. “By definition that will redefine what the expectation for a role is, which, in turn, will warrant a broader pool of people to be looked at for senior roles.”


Terry Bischoff is CEO of American Red Cross of Greater N.Y., based in New York City.

J. P. Donlon is editor-in-chief of Chief Executive Magazine, based in New York City.

Paulett Eberhart is president and CEO of Plano, Tex.-based Invensys Process Systems (IPS), a global technology group, supplying solutions, software, consultancy and equipment to monitor, control and automate processes.

Marsha Evans retired as rear admiral of the U.S. Navy, based in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

Ilene Gordon is president and CEO of Alcan Packaging, a specialty packaging company based in Chicago, III.

Clarice Kennedy is chairman and CEO of CCN, an IT services company based in New York City.

Bernadette Kenny is chief career officer at the human resources firm Adecco, which is based in Melville, N.Y.

David Kirchoff is president and CEO of Weight Watcher’s International, based in New York City.

Edward M. Kopko is chairman, president and CEO of Butler International based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and chairman, CEO and publisher of Chief Executive Magazine.

Mike Meriton is CEO of The Golden Source, a New York Citybased enterprise software company.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson is chairman of Carlson, a global group of integrated companies providing hotel, marketing, restaurant and travel services based in Minnetonka, Minn. She is the author of How We Lead Matters

Reshmi Paul, Ph.D., MBA, is a management psychologist and consultant at RHR International.

Thomas J. Saporito is president of RHR International.

Jerre Stead is executive chairman and CEO of IHS, a provider of technical information, decision support tools and related services based in Englewood, Colo.

Ame Wadler is chief management officer of MWW Group, an East Rutherford, N.J.-based public relations and marketing firm.

Judith West is CEO of New York City-based Westco, a manufacturer of presentation fixtures.

Julie Wolfe is managing director of the Denver office of RHR International.

About Jennifer Pellet

As editor-at-large at Chief Executive magazine, Jennifer Pellet writes feature stories and CEO roundtable coverage and also edits various sections of the publication.