A must read for all CEOs and senior executives this is a summary of an insightful article in the Harvard Business Review by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox first published November 2016.
Gender balance is a big business opportunity, with huge economic implications. It boosts bottom-line results, drives growth with new customer insights, and enhances productivity with better talent acquisition and retention. Companies whose executive teams are more gender balanced report higher profitability and return on equity.
If CEOs and other leaders want to tap into these benefits, it helps to know the facts and to be skilled at selling the idea of gender balance to colleagues who may be less convinced. The topic of gender balance often elicits emotional reactions from both men and women. That’s why leading through this complexity requires “gender bilingual” leaders. As a CEO, do you personally understand why it’s such an important issue — for your workforce and for your customers? Here’s the facts, the feelings, and the framework — you need to lead the change.
Understand the big picture. CEOs need to understand why gender balance offers their company a competitive opportunity, not just pay the idea lip service. If you’re not personally convinced, your team won’t be either. When it comes to gender balance, a lot of people don’t get it, don’t like it, or, frankly, resist it. That’s why you as the CEO need to be well versed at explaining why you think gender balance in your organization is so important. CEOs routinely tell me that their teams “get the business case, they just need to understand how to change,” but our anonymous interviews with their colleagues quickly call this assumption into question. Getting your team to understand why gender balance is an absolutely necessity is your first hurdle. And a balance is necessary if you want to access untapped market spaces, retain top talent, and get a competitive edge over competitors.
Know your numbers. How (im)balanced is your company? Do you have a recruitment, retention, or promotion issue? Is it all three? Do you even know? Are men and women split by level, role, function? What’s the gender split of your customers, users, or purchasing decision makers? Make sure your team accurately identifies your own company’s issues before you start trying to solve them. Too many companies are wasting time and money recruiting more women when the real issue is that they aren’t retaining or promoting them. Men typically experience the Peter principle, meaning they are promoted to their level of incompetence, whereas women often experience the Paula principle, meaning they are underpromoted across the board. This is creating situations where many multinationals are skewing female at the bottom without ever affecting the balance at the top, to their great frustration.
Learn how to distinguish between real differences and stereotypes. Men and women have well-researched differences in behaviors. But do you know how to distinguish between actual differences and stereotypes? It’s time everyone had a little more education in gender issues. If you want to effectively engage both men and women, you will need to find the words and the messages that resonate with 100% of your talent and 100% of your customers, wherever they are situated on a masculine-feminine spectrum. Many CEOs insist that they are “gender blind.” But here’s where I argue that it’s time to become gender bilingual instead. That doesn’t mean we speak two different languages. It means we deeply understand different cultures and build bridges between them to include everyone. It also means replacing women’s networks and other women-branded initiatives with inclusive approaches that unite men and women rather than separating them.
Leaders have a huge impact on the culture of their companies. Have you discussed and designed how your own culture works and what it values and promotes? Is it unconsciously leaning to a preference for masculine styles?
Set the tone. What you personally do and say as the CEO defines the culture and attitude toward gender. Your commitment to a gender-balanced organization, or your indifference, predicts your organization’s success at being truly balanced. Are you explaining and leading the company’s efforts? Who is accountable for the change? If it isn’t you and your executive team, you’re wasting your time. You need to be measuring and comparing your executive team’s success in balancing their functions as a routine part of your staff meetings. You don’t need to communicate this broadly, and you don’t need a million initiatives that take a lot of time and money. You just need a new lens through which you can look at the talent and customers you already have — or want to get. In fact, it’s much better to make change before making noise. This issue should be managed like any other business issue. But beware of the easy defaults: Getting one woman from a support function onto your team and then asking her to lead a gender initiative is doomed to fail. Recognize that the people you will most need to convince are today’s dominant majority. It’s better to have any efforts be visibly led by one of them.
Be inclusive. Do you work hard to make sure that all voices are heard
and integrated into strategies and solutions? Or do you let the noisy extroverts dominate the conversation — and then promote them for their assertiveness? Getting the best out of everyone on your team takes attention. Humans are deeply wired to recruit, promote, and even marry people who are as much like them as possible. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds comfort. CEOs who want to build trust in their meritocracies know how hard they have to encourage their colleagues to discover and get to know people who represent the talent and markets of the future.
As CEO, you need to model a skill with language that is inclusively neutral without falling into inauthentic political correctness. Your words matter, so use them intentionally. Always insist on meritocracy. Avoid announcing a goal of “having the leadership team be 30% women by 2020,” a type of pronouncement that is still an all-too-common irritant in many companies. I suggest that if you never say the word “women” again, you will save yourself a lot of grief. Talk about “talent” or “customers” or “balance” — words that avoid alienation as you strategically create a more representative balance for tomorrow.
Context is everything. Make gender balance a lever to achieving business goals.
Make it strategic. Where, when, and with whom you discuss gender issues defines their relevance to your business. Include them among your top goals. Point out the strategic link to your future business goals; people often don’t see that link, so you will need to explain it regularly and repeatedly. Talk about it in key management meetings. Talk about it yourself if you want business leaders to take it seriously. Don’t delegate to HR or think a woman is better able to address the issue. Speak to your dominant group, and visibly reward managers who build balanced teams. Set “how to gender balance” as a developmental exercise in leadership development programs. It’s a great tool for identifying smart, progressive high potentials. Groom your successor to buy into balance too, because it takes more than one CEO to get the change into the corporate DNA.
Make it personal. Recognize that everyone on your team has a personal and a professional life. Share your own personal life. Male CEOs are role models in allowing the men (and women) who work for them to talk about their own lives. The more your talk includes selected elements of your whole life, the more your employees will have permission to bring their whole selves to work. Proactively recognize life changes and phases on your team, such as marriages, illnesses, babies, and deaths, but be gender neutral in all discussions about parenting or family. Replace references to maternity leave with parental leave. Don’t assume (and don’t seem to well-intentionally imply) that the major reason there is a gender imbalance in your company is because women are “choosing” to have families. In most companies today, managers are still more willing to accept women taking parental leave than men. Until this evens out, gender balance will remain out of reach. If you want women to be leaders, encourage men to be fathers.
You will need to get all your managers to buy in to the benefits of balance, and then become skilled at selling it to others. Their readiness to do either will depend on what you as the CEO say and do. Successful gender balance starts — or fails — at the top.
Contact The Glass Lift to find out how we can help you move to a more balanced leadership within your organisation.