Where Are the Women?

Less Structure, More Culture

Empowering the next generation of women leaders is less about structure and more about culture. That’s the central message of The Committee of 200 (C200), a Chicago-based invitation-only membership organization of the world’s most successful women entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. C200’s more than 400 members generate over $200 billion in annual revenues and employ more than 2.5 million people.

CEOs who want to recruit superstar women to their boards face a lot of competition, says Russell S. Reynolds, Jr., chairman and CEO of RSR Partners, a search firm for based in Greenwich, Connecticut. He describes a client’s strategy in recruiting a particular high-profile woman to accept a board seat when she had nine other offers. “The CEO and chairman got a plane and went to visit her to personally express how much she was valued,” Reynolds says. “Women tend to be more relationship-driven than men, so the gesture proved hugely important. As far as I know, we were the only ones who made that gesture.”

Before she accepted the CEO role at a startup pre-fab construction business called Project Frog, Ann Hand took advantage of formal women’s leadership development programs at BP, McDonalds and ExxonMobil. With a team of 35 people at Project Frog, Hand knew that while she couldn’t duplicate those kinds of formal development programs, she was capable of creating the conditions for everyone to stay flexible and get exposure to new challenges. Hand admits that she sometimes forgets how key the fact that the CEO of Project Frog is a woman is to young women considering where to place their allegiance.

To truly move the bar on developing women leaders, CEOs must shift the conversation from the metaphor of diversity to the metaphor of a fully capable workforce delivering measurable business benefits, says Boston-based George Davis, co-leader of the global board practice at search firm Egon Zehnder International. “The single next most important thing is for CEOs to impose accountability, starting with themselves, for a robust hiring process that considers business needs in balance with employee needs.”