Nasdaq’s Winning Women series seeks to share the insights of successful business women from inside the boardroom and C-suite.
For this latest installment of our series on Winning Women, Caren Merrick, veteran director and entrepreneur, interviewed Mary Davis Holt, an expert in developing women leaders and transforming corporate culture. Mary is a senior consultant at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, a consulting firm with the stated goal of “moving women leaders forward faster.” She offers practical advice on how companies can effectively shift culture to support women leaders and build a diverse leadership pipeline.
Culture trumps everything. When corporate culture doesn’t match a company’s shiny public face, internal initiatives such as building a gender-diverse management pipeline are likely to fail. In my work, I’ve observed that companies “walking the talk” of gender parity share the following characteristics:
1) The company has taken the time to audit its own culture.
Culture is elusive, made up of behaviors and beliefs that are felt beneath the surface, rather than seen. So, the first step to retooling a corporate culture is to define what it is currently.
Culture can be audited through surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one interviews, although I’m not a fan of surveys. It’s difficult for HR to be objective when analyzing culture, and employees are hesitant to be too candid with internal surveys. Even when the surveys are outsourced, they lack the editorial give-and-take of focus groups and interviews, which is where truly meaningful insights bubble up.
I find the best results come when a company brings in a leadership development consulting group to interview employees first-hand about what it’s like to be a woman in that organization. Interviewers delve into issues with lots of probing questions: What are the hurdles in your way? Why are women leaving? How are your benefits? Is there flexibility in the work arrangements? These interviews can be conducted in a focus group setting or one-on-one. It’s important to seek input from men as well as women, and to interview a broad range of employees from mid-level up through to the top.
Along with employee perspectives, the company should gather some hard data with regards to employment of women at the company. How many women are being hired? How long do they stay in entry level roles? At what levels in the organizational hierarchy do the numbers of women begin to drop off?
Culture-shaping consultants can help distill the information from interviews and internal employment data into a “culture report card”. Depending on their level of expertise, consultants can also help to develop and implement strategies to address any issues that were uncovered.
2) Senior leadership champions diversity and inclusion.
The most powerful lever of cultural change is a CEO who is walking the talk. A company can hire the most successful culture-shaping consultants in the world, but if the CEO and senior leadership team aren’t articulating why change needs to happen and taking visible action to make it happen, the culture will not change.
CEOs who are actively engaged in making a difference for women in the workplace typically have some kind of personal experience that got them excited about the issue. Some are pressured by institutional investors, some have daughters entering the workplace and coming up against some tough barriers, some are sponsoring a senior woman but she’s not advancing and they want to dig into it and understand why.
Whatever the motivator, when a CEO commits to making the company’s culture more supportive of women, everybody else in the company sits up straight and says, “If he’s doing it, I’d better do it too.” One of my CEO clients told his C-suite team (consisting of 10 men), “Each of you is going to pick a senior woman you want to sponsor. I’m going to ask you every quarter to report how it’s going and what progress she’s made, and I want to hear what you are doing to support her.” The CEO further directed that each sponsored woman should attend a senior leadership team meeting to get a sense of what goes on. That company, as a result, has one of the most successful leadership development programs we have ever facilitated.
3) The company holds itself accountable to creating a supportive culture.
Companies that are serious about supporting female employees use insights from their culture audits to establish measurable, incremental goals—and they hold management accountable to achieving them. Maybe the company wants to increase retention of women by five points, or grow the number of women in senior management by a certain time frame. Whatever the goals, they need to be publicly stated (at least internally if not externally) so employees see that management is committed to making it happen.
4) Hiring and advancement practices within the company promote parity.
Companies with supportive cultures hire and promote in an equitable way, with a level of parity for men and women. Companies need to do an honest assessment of hiring and advancement practices to ensure both genders are treated the same during those processes.
This is harder than it sounds, because unconscious biases get in the way. For example, a recent report by McKinsey reminds us that men are often promoted based on their potential for performance while women are promoted based on their actual results. Either yardstick is fine, but the company needs to pick one, so the same criteria is applied to all employees.
5) Unconscious bias is proactively routed out.
Unconscious bias is not intentional or overt but rather a very low-key hidden driver of behaviors that can operate against success and leave women with a very narrow leadership path to walk.
Here are some examples of behaviors that indicate unconscious bias:
- Assuming high potential women with children and two-career households aren’t relocatable for promotions.
- Tolerating foul language and inappropriate storytelling in workplace settings.
- Setting double standards for desirable leadership traits (i.e. confident and assertive women are seen as being overly aggressive and bossy while that same behavior is acceptable in the men).
Companies that take steps to address unconscious bias experience greater success in creating supportive cultures. When trying to rout unconscious bias from company culture, some organizations will put the whole organization through unconscious bias training, and some will conduct an analysis to find out where the pockets are.
Neither approach is easy to execute effectively. Discerning the unconscious biases of a population of employees can be really difficult. And oftentimes unconscious bias training fails because it’s approached in a manner that becomes a turnoff to people who are taking the training, so they stop listening and nothing happens. It’s critical to design the training curriculum so that it’s relevant, actionable and reflective of the company’s unique culture.
Unconscious bias is so tricky to identify and remediate that I often recommend companies deal with more tangible issues during the first stages of a culture shift and tackle unconscious bias later in the process.
6) The work environment is flexible.
The women I coach through my firm are much happier—and more productive—when they have some workplace flexibility, whether it’s flex time, work from home, reduced hours, or paternity and maternity leave. It’s not just women—men need it too.
Allowing flexibility and trusting that the company will continue to generate good productivity and strong results from employees is critical to a supportive culture. Millennials are going to demand it, so while a company may be able to avoid it right now, it won’t for much longer.
7) Leadership development includes a formal sponsorship program.
Harvard Business Review published an article that reported women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. I’ve personally observed that to be true, to the point that I don’t believe women can make it to the top of their organizations without sponsorship. Internal leadership development programs should include formalized sponsorship.
A productive sponsorship program goes beyond throwing two people together and saying, “Go have a sponsorship relationship.” Upper management should not leave the matching process to happen organically, because in most cases it won’t. Sponsors need to be assigned women, and they need to be supported with tools and training. Both parties need coaching to maximize the relationship. Routine check-ins with leadership coaches or upper management can help to ensure accountability. These conversations are highly customized and in-person: How’s it going? What’s the problem? What’s an issue? What do you need? Companies should track the progress of the women being sponsored to gauge the effectiveness of the program.
One of my clients, Heidrick & Struggles (Nasdaq: HSII), has committed to retooling its corporate culture, and has adopted many of the practices I described above with great success. They’re looking at their numbers and developing metrics to report progress, they’ve established a diversity committee, they have appointed a diversity officer. Their CEO is totally on board. And we’ve helped them create a leadership development program with a strong sponsorship thread. The company is matching senior leaders with high potential women, and we’re giving them the training and support to make these relationships productive.
Seven months into the program, the positive effect on both the women and their sponsors and on the corporate culture has been incredible. I’ve seen real tangible results there in a very short time: the company has two women on the board, there are new women on the leadership team, and women are running offices and practices throughout the organization.
Read our most recent Winning Women installment featuring Candy Duncan here>>
Read the first article of our Winning Women series featuring Janet Hill here >>
Mary Davis Holt is a Senior Consultant at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership (FHHL), providing executive coaching on business, women, and leadership. Prior to joining FHHL, Mary held executive positions at Time Warner, Inc. with oversight that ranged from finance to IT, marketing, human resources, manufacturing, and distribution. She served as Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Time Life, Inc. and as President of Time Life Books.
Caren Merrick is the CEO of Caren Merrick & Co. Previously, she was founder and CEO of Pocket Mentor, a mobile application and digital publishing company that provides leadership development and career advancement. Caren currently serves on the boards of The Gladstone Companies (Nasdaq: GAIN, GLAD, GOOD, LAND). She is also a co-founder and former Executive Vice President of webMethods, Inc., a business-to-business enterprise software solution, which went public on Nasdaq before being acquired.