September 22nd, 2010 | 6:00 am

Fastest Way To Gender-Balanced Leadership – Appoint A Woman CEO

filed under Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Lynn_24P2193_FBy Lynn Harris, author, Unwritten Rules: What Women Need To Know About Leading In Today’s Organizations

Corporations are now, in many ways, as powerful, or sometimes more powerful, than governments. It therefore matters a lot who sits on their boards and executive teams. These are the people who set strategy and make decisions that affect all of our lives.

Some of these companies are smart enough to understand the importance and the competitive advantage of gender-balanced leadership. Men and women working together, using complimentary thinking and behaviors to innovate, understand customers, prevent group-think and limit risk. Achieving gender balance also doubles the talent pool from which to draw our most talented leaders.

But many organizations, even those that set the strategic imperative to appoint more women leaders, struggle to make it happen.

Well-Intentioned, But Failed Initiatives

For several years now, we’ve seen well-motivated, but largely unsuccessful initiatives.

Hiring more women to “fill the pipeline” doesn’t work if the numbers of women drastically reduce as we move up the organization (which is the case in most companies).

Retention strategies don’t work if we fail to understand and address the real reasons why talented women leave and don’t return.

Women’s networks often have little impact on getting more women to the top because they are not part of a wider, more comprehensive strategy.

Senior men mentoring talented women should be effective, but often disappoints. Mentorship isn’t enough on its own. Women, like their male counterparts, need sponsorship for senior leadership positions – that’s the way it works in large organizations.

Training workshops for women leaders can be helpful, but often fail to have any significant impact on the numbers of women making it to the executive suite for three key reasons:

  • First, they often stand alone and are not part of a wider, strategic initiative;
  • Second, a “fix the women” approach usually tries to get women to conform to traditional, male leadership behaviors (totally missing the opportunity of women leaders bringing something different and complementary);
  • And third, they exclude men – it’s naive to imagine that we can effect change without involving men who usually make up 70 -100% of the current leadership.

All of these initiatives are well-intentioned, but usually fail in their objective to achieve gender-balanced leadership.

So what’s the answer?

Perhaps the fastest solution is the simplest one – appoint a woman CEO.

Women at the Top

In 2009, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox launched the WOMENOMICS 101 Survey. It highlights that the core metric that determines if an organization will achieve gender-balanced leadership is the balance of men and women on the Executive Committee.

In her survey, she demonstrates that companies that achieve a gender-balance of senior leaders also achieve gender-balanced leadership pipelines. More women senior leaders results in more women leading throughout the organization.

Even more interesting, the 2009 survey highlights that companies with a woman CEO achieved some of the most gender-balanced leadership teams in the world. It compares 12 companies headed by progressive, male CEOs – men who expressed strong support for promoting women to senior positions, with 12 companies run by women.

Three of the 12 male-run companies (J Sainsbury, Sodexo and National Grid) achieved the magic figure of three women on their Boards (the critical mass that has been shown to significantly impact decision-making at the top). But nine of the 12 had either a token woman executive or none at all. Only one company (J Sainsbury) had three women on its Executive Committee.

Compare this with the organizations led by women CEO’s (Wellpoint, Archer Daniels Midland, Sunoco, Pepsico, Kraft Foods, TJX Companies, Rite Aid, Xerox, Sara Lee, Avon, Reynolds American and Western Union Holdings). Eleven of the 12 had at least three women on the Board and many of them had more. Nine of the 12 had between three and eight women on their Executive Committee.

Most male CEOs seem to find it hard to develop a culture that attracts, promotes and retains senior women leaders. The female CEOs in this survey don’t seem to share this problem.

And so perhaps the simplest and fasted solution to achieving gender-balance at the top of organizations is to appoint more women CEOs. I wonder what the men think about that idea?

3 comments

  1. Linda Tarr-Whelan

    Hurray for Lynn — this is a thoughtful piece and while I agree appointing a woman to be CEO is the fastest route to true progress we seem to be lagging on that metric. Each of us can play a role — never let an opening go without at least one woman in the pool of finalists. It is impossible for a woman to be chosen if she is not a finalist. Help set this policy wherever you are — politics, private sector, government, non-profit or community group.

  2. Anna Smith

    Great post, I really enjoyed it. Thanks! :)

  3. Helen

    I think having the balance works well in large organisations it gives a good structure to the company.