Getting Gender-Balanced Leadership: How to Help Your Organization

Getting and keeping women in business leadership requires a significant culture shift.

It’s interesting to observe how we strive for gender balance in our personal lives. Couples who have three boys try once more for a girl, or vice versa; when they have one of each, they’re generally content to stop, knowing they’ll get the opportunity to raise both genders. But in the workplace, we find it uncomfortable to talk about gender balance and why we might want a certain mix of men and women on a team. We find it even more difficult to talk about how to do that.

Most organizations focusing on getting more women in leadership start by creating a women’s leadership initiative or affinity group. Quite frankly, that’s way down on the list of things you should do. While such initiatives bring some benefit to the development of women leaders, there’s no evidence they actually make any impact on helping women get promoted. Women may learn from their peers and from guest speakers and will find those groups to be an additional support system; that’s all good. But these efforts are not valuable without mentors, succession planning, leadership models, and practices that retain and promote your female talent.

Getting and keeping women in business leadership requires a significant culture shift. The first hurdle is for leaders to learn how to have comfortable conversations within their organizations. This must start with understanding the why. People won’t change what they do unless they are clear on why they should, and what’s in it for them.

In my book, “Money on the Table: How to Increase Profits Through Gender-Balanced Leadership,” I describe 10 steps organizations need to take in order to achieve more gender balance in leadership. Here, I’ll share some of the most relevant actions to break the cycle of having more of the same.

It’s about the money. Teach people about why having gender-balanced leadership is good for the bottom line of the business. There are now countless studies that provide proof. One example comes from Credit Suisse Research Institute.

In 2014, Credit Suisse Research Institute expanded research to include data on women in senior management. It found that firms with women in 15 percent or more of their top jobs consistently outperform those with less than 10 percent. And as the leadership team becomes more balanced, results improve, according to Credit Suisse, which surveyed 3,000 companies across 40 countries and all major sectors. Since 2009, the study found that companies with a three-to-one male-female management mix have averaged annualized returns of nearly 23 percent.

If you need more evidence, you can refer to several other studies such as those from McKinsey & Company, Women Matter 2013 and Women in the Workplace 2016.

It’s about brain science. Help leaders understand why men and women think, communicate, and problem solve differently, which is tied to the physical make-up of our brains. Understanding why men, as a gender, may be more aggressive and impatient, and women, as a gender, may be more empathetic and listen more intently, is crucial. Even more importantly, leaders must grasp why all of these traits are needed to achieve the best products and services for your customers.

The part of the brain known as the is a complex set of structures that are responsible for instinct and mood. This system controls basic emotions such as fear, pleasure, and anger and drives physical requirements for sex, hunger, dominance, and caring for others. All these areas of the brain vary between men and women and are known to produce different behavioral tendencies.

Providing your organization with the science behind leadership traits provides your organization with a vocabulary to have more comfortable conversations in the workplace. People can relate to these trait differences in a way they cannot relate to numbers. It’s also harder to dispute science than it is how a company achieves financial performance.

Establish and communicate the criteria for successful leadership. Has your organization defined what makes a successful leader in your organization? Are your best people the right benchmark? Does every leader in your organization clearly understand the criteria for exceptional performance, not just survival?

Your organization needs firm criteria that describe exactly what traits and behaviors are priorities for your it. It is crucial that you establish and communicate the characteristics that are priorities for your company. When you identify and reiterate the most important characteristics, you can use those criteria for your most important talent decisions—from hiring to performance evaluation to promotions.

Mentor your high-potential females. Every executive in your company should be a mentor to your high-potential staff. It is a responsibility that comes with being a senior leader. Mentoring typically is thought of as some nebulous process where people get together and the mentor gives the mentee—often a more junior professional—career advice. There’s some truth to that, but effective mentoring needs to have more structure. Some simple guidelines and ground rules will make it work.

Establish a succession plan. Any organization, no matter how large or small, needs a succession plan for leadership, from the CEO’s chair to, at least, the director level of management. And gender balance is an essential component of this plan if you want the best thinking. You plan for all kinds of organizational needs—having the right ratio of managers to doers, ethnic diversity, growth, transitions, rightsizing, and so on—so why wouldn’t you plan for succession? Gender balance should be a key component of this plan.

If your plan is out of balance, go back and rework it. Decide where you have opportunities to develop high-potential females, or hire them to achieve more gender balance.

There is no race or time limit on achieving gender balance within leadership, but the sooner you start, the sooner you will be able to see clear progress.

Melissa Greenwell is executive vice president and chief operating officer of national retailer The Finish Line, Inc. She is the author of “Money On The Table: How to Increase Profits Through Gender-Balanced Leadership.”



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