Another year, another International Women’s Day. Yet most experts agree the world isn’t much further along when it comes to women working in top leadership roles.
Although the number of women running major organizations has increased over the years, the tally still hovers around 6%, research shows. Not to mention, of the 26 women who’ve taken the helm at Russell 3000 Index companies over the past year, more than a dozen women CEOs have stepped down or were ousted from the role.
To be sure, many organizations have made strides to increase diversity both in the workplace and at the top. But, experts say, those efforts often don’t address the ingrained talent structures and behaviors that keep women and other diverse talent from moving into leadership roles. “They’re addressing some important needs but not core issues that we know drive sustainable outcomes in progressing women past the middle level,” says Shannon Hassler, a principal with Korn Ferry’s Advancing Women Worldwide team. “This is why representation is improving at a glacial pace.”
Of course, experts say, it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, companies can take three critical steps that, while hard, make the incremental difference in bringing more women into leadership.
Discover diverse talent early.
Organizations should identify diverse talent for potential much earlier in their careers—not just the top three levels to CEO—since women often have to work harder and longer than their peers in order to reach the C-suite. Indeed, Korn Ferry’s Women CEOs Speak study found that, before becoming CEO, women worked, on average, in about 11% more roles, functions, and industries than male leaders at similar-sized companies. They were also four years older when named to their first chief executive position, according to the report.
Experts say this is because women face a presumption of limits, in which their skills and capabilities are more closely scrutinized than that of their peers. But Korn Ferry research shows that high-potential talent demonstrate characteristics predictive of leadership success very early on in their career. Organizations, therefore, should create more objective early measurements that identify women and other diverse talent for leadership potential early and often, experts say. “It’s about how to recognize the best talent in new and more accurate ways,” Hassler says.
Link women with P&L and other critical pass-through roles.
Experts say profit-and-loss positions best prepare a leader to be CEO; in fact, roughly 90% of new chief executives come directly from roles with bottom-line responsibility, according to multiple studies. However, Korn Ferry research shows that, while the path to CEO is typically lined with P&L roles, those positions are devoid of diverse talent: only 20% of roles at the senior vice president level are held by women. “They tend to be on a strictly vertical trajectory in whatever expertise they have,” says Jane Stevenson, global leader for Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice and vice chairman of the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice at Korn Ferry. “They get trapped there.”
As a result, the number of women in the leadership succession pipeline continues to dwindle, experts say. But organizations have an opportunity to shift course by opening up the pathways for women and other diverse talent to manage large, complex P&L responsibilities. Companies should look at every P&L role and examine why there may be a lack of diversity, then take the steps necessary to ensure diverse talent have the same opportunities for critical, pass-through functions that position them for the corner office. “Women have to get more operationally focused and get horizontal experience to be considered for leadership roles,” Stevenson says.
Pull women in instead of singling them out.
In an effort to address diversity issues, many companies will pull women and other diverse talent out of existing high-potential programs and into specialized ones. Yet, while these diversity-and-inclusion (D&I) practices have shown some positive results, experts say that this approach is not as effective as organizations believe. “We’ve talked about D&I for so long that it’s been put in a box,” Hassler says. “But diversity is a metric. Inclusion is how we get there.”
Instead, experts say, real improvements are made when women are pulled into the same traditional leadership programs as their counterparts and working alongside them—what Stevenson calls “the power of all.” In other words, companies would better ensure diversity at the top if they were more intentional about inclusion, bringing women and other diverse talent into established programs to develop and accelerate their leadership capability. “It’s an opportunity to get more out of what you already have and realize the proven outcomes that diversity provides,” she says. “That’s the power of all.”