Last month, I was consulted by a large international client. They were launching a thoughtful and contemporary worldwide multicultural and generational mentoring initiative and wanted to do some additional programming for their high-performing, successful women. The ultimate goal was to increase the number of women in their leadership ranks, which had dismally been hovering at the industry average of 13% for a very long time. So why was this important to them?
Average performance was not in this client’s DNA. It was instead a matter of pride. They saw a metric (percentage of women in leadership positions) that was under-performing, and they wanted to fix it. They were market leaders. Given this drive and their general knowledge of the increasing focus on women leaders as a meaningful business performance differentiator, the embarrassing issue of gender under-representation in their leadership ranks was finally on some executive’s to-do list.
I attended this meeting with a handful of high-level women who were the few that had managed to crack the leadership barrier. As if they didn’t have enough to do, they had been tasked with the responsibility to create and champion this “extra” program for women. Their enthusiasm to do so was clearly mixed, but their A+ achievement orientation was nonetheless driving the process forward. They had a current plan, but wanted to be sure. As a boutique player from a majority female owned and operated firm, I was there to give a second opinion.
The current plan had been put together for them by a leading, global consulting giant. They slid the two-day “Women’s Mentoring Program” in front of me. I carefully reviewed the proposal and immediately resisted the urge to blow the metaphorical dust off the outdated approach. It read like a 1990s era canned training manual for women in the workplace. The itinerary stuck in my throat just reading it. I could not help to despair. Was this truly all of the ‘progress’ we had made in the last 30 years? I could not imagine sitting through the proposed training, let alone feeling energized and engaged by it. It was particularly baffling given the progressive global mentoring program they were developing for the entire high-potential population.
“You are going to have all of your highest performing women together in one place for the first time. Is this really what you want to do with them.”
“So, can I clarify something?” I asked. “Of course,” they said. “This program is for the women in your company who are already high-performing and successful?” “Yes,” they said. I took a deep breath. “May I be a little provocative here?” They exchanged nervous glances, but told me to proceed. This was, after all, the reason that they had sought a second opinion.
“So, let me see if I understand. You are going to bring all of your highest-performing women together in one place for the first time in the history of your company. You are then going to provide these successful women with extra training, which you are not providing to the high-performing men. Let’s stop and think for a moment what message this sends to the rest of the organization. You are going to teach them how to be confident. You are going to teach them how their female approach might be viewed by the male leadership. You are going to teach them how to overcome (clearly known) obstacles to their advancement in the work environment (instead of committing as a company to identify and remove the obstacles). And, when you are done training these high-performing women, you are going to give them a networking and mentoring opportunity, where you parade them in front of all the men for a dinner?”
For an uncomfortably long time, the room was pin-drop quiet. I resisted the urge to vent my frustration and just let this sink in. Then, I said, “You are going to have all of your highest performing women together in one place for the first time. Is this really what you want to do with them?”
Honestly, my client and I couldn’t rip up that outdated programming proposal fast enough and we’ve never looked back. That meeting was the start of a collaborative and creative journey to customize energizing global programs designed to harness the unique business perspective of these high-performing women and engage them in the business discussions they come to work every day to tackle and solve. While we are at it, we also are taking the opportunity to ask these women what they need to be successful, which includes identifying the corporate obstacles and seeking commitment from the leadership to find ways to remove them. We also are exploring organizational flexibility and vitality as key drivers for sustained performance, retention and success. As it turns out, even the process of creating this programming has been energizing for all of the business leaders involved.
Is your company in need of a leadership development makeover? I recommend you take a moment to look at how women are being utilized in your firm and ensure that they are being given all the opportunities to get involved in business decisions their position affords. It’s time to let your women leaders lead.