7 Ways to Build a Culture that Nurtures High Potential Women

The case for gender parity is clear. Leverage these guidelines to create a culture of inclusion in your organisation.

With Diversity and Inclusion a key concern for many employers, it gives rise to the question of how to retain the high potential females in your organisation.

A recurring complaint is that high potential women leave organisations because “what good looks like” is too biased towards “male” behaviour. Women who demonstrate these “male” characteristics tend to be derided for their behaviour. Men are “driven”; women are “pushy”. Men are “achievers”, women “trample” over others. Recent research by Tzemach-Lemmon (2015) talks about the need to embrace the “and” when it comes perceptions of women. Her study found that 'marines' and 'lipstick' is not a natural association in peoples’ minds but when it comes to performance one should not have to take on male characteristics to be taken seriously.

So how you can identify whether you might be favouring male high potentials without even realising?

Who came up with your leadership framework or high potential criteria? If it was your senior leadership team, how representative is that group? Could you be unconsciously finding people to replace them who are made in their image? If this is the case you could be losing out on the known benefits of a more diverse approach.

What are your additional criteria for being “high potential”?

For global clients international mobility is often a hot topic when it comes to deciding whether an employee is high potential. Established leaders can have a sense of “well that’s how I got here, so that’s how it should be for others”. However, could these criteria preclude some women (particularly those with young families) from putting themselves forward? What specific skills are gained through working elsewhere? Could these be obtained through working in another location in the UK, rather than internationally? What stretch assignments could be created to help tackle any gaps in capability? It could be that only international will “do” but it’s important to try and think creatively first. An interview with the authors of recent research found that surprisingly female employees defined as “high potential” did not tend to fit the stereotype of having to be available at all times. So it seems that what is crucial is to start thinking differently about what is required within a role.

However this latter organisation had clear diversity goals in place and was committed to this philosophy. How can you create this in your organisation? At Right Management we have a number of guidelines with respect to building a culture of inclusion within your organisation. These are as follows:

1. Change yourself first – Believe it or don’t bother. Change must be authentic.
2. Leadership has to own it, don’t delegate it – CEOs need to own the issue, it can’t be delegated to HR.
3. Flip the question: Ask “Why Not?” – Challenge assumptions. Instead of saying “She doesn’t have the experience”, ask “what do we need to make it work?”
4. Hire people who value people – They will optimise human potential and be open to strategies that support One Life.
5. Promote a culture of conscious inclusion – Generic programs don’t work. Accountability sits with senior leadership and decision makers to promote a culture of conscious inclusion.
6. Be explicit: Women when and where – Leaders must know exactly where women need to be to achieve gender parity at all levels and in every business unit.
7. Be accountable: Set measurable objectives and achievable outcomes – Articulate a talent legacy – how things will change and what it will look like by when.

Once you have identified your high potentials, how can you support them to be as successful as possible?

Increasingly organisations have been setting up women in leadership networks to try and help women move up the career ladder. Even at Davos this year there was a “The Girls Lounge , an area where women could network; providing an alternative to the old boys clubs. However within organisation networking can backfire if you are not clear on messaging. If senior women feel that the current generation should have to fight hard like they did to get to the top e.g. work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, trying to juggle everything then this will come across (even unconsciously). While it is natural for them to feel that way, it is important to push for change, rather than accepting that things must stay as they have always been.

Another sure-fire way of supporting high potentials is to provide coaching and mentoring. However to manage this as effectively as is possibly it is important to identify what topics require mentoring support and what require coaching. Essentially; while mentoring and coaching draw on similar skills (e.g. active listening, questioning), the main difference is that mentors typically have specific expertise in the area in which the mentee requires support e.g. P&L management.

Hopefully this stimulates your thinking with respect to measuring and supporting high potential women in your organisation.

Author: Eleanor Hanley, Consultant, Right Management UK


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