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Cynthia Stuckey

The Forum Corporation EMEA

Managing Director

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Nurture your female talent into pole position


We're getting there, but still a way off from gender parity in the boardroom. Cynthia Stuckey investigates.

It's been hard to escape Lord Davies' report [1] announcing how 25% of FTSE 100 directors are now female. This is up from 12.5% four years ago and, as Vince Cable remarked, ‘FTSE 100 boards have made enormous progress.' Whilst this news is encouraging, the female to male ratio still remains low. And, if you compare it with the FTSE 250, the picture looks worse. Management Today reported that just 18% of directors are female and 23 companies still do not have a single woman on their boards.

So what can L&D do to attract, retain and nurture female talent to become the next set of aspiring leaders?

Risk and reward

Research on leadership reveals that female leaders are less inclined to take risks compared with their male counterparts. They are more hesitant or question their decisions. Companies, however, need senior leaders that are self-confident and assured in their decision in order to inspire confidence and trust. This is especially important when faced with 'Black Swan' events. Leaders need to be prepared to take risks and implement change, even in the face of adversity, to bring about innovation and progress.

Companies should therefore encourage calculated risk and innovation through recognition and reward, even when initiatives fail. It's important for people to know that they won't be ostracised or relegated for mistakes and for managers to use opportunities to reflect on actions to help their team to learn and grow.

Encourage to collaborate not mimic

Women tend to have good interpersonal skills with a natural tendency to encourage, recognise and develop others. They provide more of the 'why' when communicating, helping people to understand the context of the situation, which in turn increases a person's commitment to a task.

Men on the other hand, are often less relational. Their teamwork is focused on getting individuals to work with others to complete tasks. Performance management tends to be more direct and factual with little emotion. The way they communicate and even the outcome of this feels and looks different.

Whilst both styles work in their own right, over time many females tend to adapt their natural leadership style to fit a male culture. This can be successful in some cases but my observations have found that mimicking rather than not doing more of what is instinctive, results in many women displaying aggressive methods to control and manage performance. They become more direct and less engaged, working around people rather than through them in an attempt to show confidence and competence to deliver results on their own.

But great leaders collaborate. They generate success though others and communicate regularly to encourage people to engage in their work. Through regular coaching and mentoring programmes, employers should encourage and teach women - and men - to draw out their natural leadership style in a way that nurtures others to succeed. Provide materials centrally so leaders can share experiences and advice, and measure and incentivise managers on their team's levels of engagement, development and performance.

Mind shift

To prepare your female talent for senior leadership it's important to teach them how to think like an executive. In other words, how to see the bigger picture. Some women, not all, are less inclined to think politically first. But great leaders see beyond their function. They have an understanding of all of their stakeholders, their motivations and intentions, and balance this against their actions and recommendations.

They look past their workload and consider the national and international needs of the organisation to execute strategies that will complete on a global scale. They don't wait to be asked but take charge and, if there's a problem then they will come up with a solution and mobilise their resources to resolve the situation.

However, changing a person's mindset isn't something that is achieved overnight. It requires a continuous learning and development programme from the point they are hired, consisting of mentoring and coaching by those above. Put in place development plans and career maps with stretch assignments and promotions that expose female talent to career enhancing opportunities. Then, undertake regular reviews to ensure your aspiring leaders are being selected for high visible programs that give them the access they need to senior leaders.

Build your network - mentors and sponsors

Teaching your aspiring leaders effective networking skills is a great investment. Externally, they become ambassadors of the company - opening doors to new business and partnerships - whilst gathering valuable market insight for strategic vision.

Being politically connected also helps to climb the career ladder. The wider the network the greater the chance of being involved in key decisions, projects and promotional opportunities. However, in male-dominated organisations, it can be much harder for women to build networks. Check with line managers that female members are building strong profiles and contacts or whether they need support.

Setting up a mentoring or 'buddy' programme can help. Assign each person to a mentor to show them what stakeholders to connect with. Where possible, the mentor should also become their sponsor and bring the person onto a challenging project that links them to key leaders that they would not normally access. Alternatively, there is reverse mentoring. IBM currently pairs top leaders (often male) with female mentors who have been identified as future leaders. It's raises the profile of up-and-coming female leaders to top executives, helps to break down some of the unconscious bias, and exposes female leaders to the strategic work in the company.

Family-friendly schemes

Most companies today embrace flexible working (especially since the law expanded to give everyone the right to request flexible working), but don't wait for your employee to ask. Proactively offer employee benefits that are family friendly and accommodate individual circumstances. For example, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly offers after school programs for children to attend activities in the evening, which help to reduce the choice women must often make between family and work.

Consider flexible work programs such as offered by global healthcare company Roche. It offers employees 12 days of remote work per quarter should they need to care for their children, sick parents or focus on a project. This shows trust in their staff which workers will likely repay in increased loyalty.

Introducing concessions along with tailored leadership development programs for both women and men are key to any company competing in today's strong jobs market. It sends out a clear message; one that shows the company's commitment to its future talent and one that will guarantee to attract and retain the best in female leadership.

[1] Lord Davies report, 25 March 2015

Cynthia Stuckey is managing director at the Forum Corporation, a global expert in leadership development and sales performance training solutions. As a practitioner, consultant, and senior leader, Cynthia is a respected expert in the areas of international business, corporate transformations, strategy development, and execution of performance enhancement strategies.


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Cynthia Stuckey

Managing Director

Read more from Cynthia Stuckey

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