Future leadership…an important question for Americans to consider this election year. But as we weigh the merits and personal attributes of those running for elective office, let me suggest that equally important leadership questions loom over the business and non-profit sectors of our society. The key question is where are our future C-suite and boardroom leaders going to come from? Who will be filling the pipeline and why aren’t more women among them? Especially, why aren’t more women heading for the corner office?
Women are poorly represented in corporate America with few female CEOs, and the pipeline of future women leaders is not reassuring. Only 14.2% of the top five leadership positions at companies in the S&P 500 are held by women, according to a recent CNNMoney analysis.
And, at the very top of these organizations, there are only 24 women in CEO positions out of 500 companies. And that number is going down as Zerox’s Ursula Burns, the only black woman running an S&P 500 company, is relinquishing the CEO role when Xerox splits in two later this year (she will remain with the legacy document-technology company as its chairman).
True, recently there have been some high-profile members added to this, sadly, extremely small group – Lockheed Martin’s Marillyn Hewson and GM’s Mary Barra, for instance – but the fact remains that women currently make up a minute percentage of U.S. organizations’ top leaders.
Why is this the case? You’ll get many answers to that question. But, in my experience, it boils down to a few troubling explanations.
Close your eyes and think of a CEO leading a senior-level meeting. Who do you picture…what does your CEO look like? Probably a man. More often than not, a white man. If a woman is in your picture at all, she’s most likely in a human resource or marketing role, important but not the path to the top. Rarely is she the CFO, COO or general counsel. Look at a mission-critical job and you will probably see a man doing it. Women are also lagging far behind their male counterparts in the profit-and-loss positions where future leaders are identified and groomed.
When you’re not among those tapped for a place on the ladder to the top, you don’t get the mentoring nor the sponsorships without which, it is very difficult to get the assignments that showcase your talents.
It is rare in today’s competitive organization – whether for-profit or non-profit – for a woman to receive the critical support she needs from high-ranking sponsors who can actively campaign for her advancement. A sponsor will fight for you, and position you for success within the organization. Without that support, you are pretty much on your own.
During my years as a former recruiter specializing in placing senior-level executives, I saw the mindset of hiring managers many of whom had fixed views about women and men, leadership and careers. Those views frequently created barriers for women, their talent and their unique perspectives.
Eliminating – or at least minimizing – those views and stultifying mindsets are critical to lowering gender barriers in the workplace.
A new study conducted by Leanin.org and McKinsey & Company revealed that despite modest improvements, the overarching findings were similar: Women remain underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline, with the disparity greatest at senior levels of leadership. So, waiting for organizations to suddenly push a button and change habits formed over generations doesn’t seem to be the best strategy to add women to the leadership pipeline.
But, there are things women (we) can do to help ourselves. Take control of your career and be pro-active.
Let your organization know that you are interested in leadership positions. Volunteer for assignments or offer to lead a project that will stretch you.
When you see an opportunity for advancement, don’t back away because you can only meet most, but not all, of the criteria – a man wouldn’t. You’ve got this!
Don’t overthink your chances of success…take a shot …….a man would!
Market yourself. Let the leaders of your organization know about your successes and achievements. Don’t assume others will do that for you. And don’t be afraid to speak up and present your point of view.
Develop your “personal brand,” the authentic you that no one can duplicate. That way you communicate and build relationships in a way that is unique to you. Build on this personal brand and extend your network so that your brand is also extended.
Learn to think and act like a board member. That can come from serving on volunteer or non-profit boards – also a great way to extend your network – build governance and other C-suite skills.
Each of us needs to step forward, out of the shadows, both for our individual development as leaders and to fill the leadership pipeline with women. This is a critical step we women need to take to make sure there are more women in the CEO seat!
Jan Molino is the CEO & Managing Partner of Aspire Ascend, a service provider and member-based organization, that helps women advance toward leadership. She is an experienced speaker and facilitated numerous forums and panel discussions on this subject. Jan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.