Much has been said about the hard road faced by women who seek top spots in corporate America. Many point out, for instance, that women executives still often are paid less than their male counterparts, and that they face stereotypes, such as not being tough enough for the job, that the weakestseeming man does not. But despite these (often justifiable) gripes, women are making it to the top of companies. This is due in part to their perseverance, and in part to development programs that gave them a push in the right direction. A women's leadership program is a great way to encourage young female talent in your organization-and it's also a great way to find your next star CEO.
A Network of Their Own
COMPANIES SHOULD RECOGNIZE THE INDIVIDUAL TALENTS OF THE WOMEN WORKING FOR THEM, AND GIVE THEM INITIATIVES TO DRIVE.
At Cbeyond, a managed services provider in Atlanta, promising women leaders are encouraged via the Cbeyond Women's Network, an organization the company built to help women better connect with one another and find greater opportunities, says Vice President, Learning and Development Mary Ford. "Five years ago, a few of us went to a program in Atlanta that recognized companies that provided a supportive environment for women, and we walked away from that awards program realizing we have a lot of fantastic female contributors at the company, and thought we could do something to promote career development for women within the company on our own terms," she explains. "We watched these companies being awarded for things such as on-site daycare, and some of those larger company perks, and realized we couldn't do that for financial reasons, but knew there was something we could do to promote women's career development."
A little more than a month later, Ford and her colleagues came up with and launched Cbeyond Women's Network, garnered executive support (including a small budget), and held the first session. The corporate budget for the program is supplemented by membership dues, and now has approximately 100 paid members who meet monthly. "We established as the objectives to provide a safe environment for learning and development, and to have an environment where we could get to know each other," says Ford. The network is built around a monthly speaker series. Every few months a new development theme is launched in which speakers from outside the company speak on topics such as creating a personal brand and communications skills.
The Network itself is a testing ground for leadership as it is composed of committees members serve on, complete with leadership roles and succession planning. The program has enhanced the engagement of Cbeyond's women employees, says Ford, who notes, "I've had women tell me they love working at Cbeyond specifically because of that program, and the focus we put on women's development."
"It's a man's world," girls used to be told. These days, it's not quite so bad, but despite the increased number of women in leadership roles, corporations still have improvements to make. Here are some tips for boosting female leadership at your organization:
• Perks such as on-site childcare are great, but many companies can't afford it in this cash-strapped economy. For a low-cost women's leadership development option, organize an all-female network with paid membership supplemented by a modest budget courtesy of your company. Meet once a month just to network (that's half the challenge to rising to the top), or, if finances permit, bring in speakers.
• If your company opts to forgo a leadership development program designed specifically for women, ensure females are well represented in all of your training programs, and see if your company can partner with an affinity group in your industry that is dedicated to boosting the number of women in your company's line of work.
• Avoid falling prey to gender stereotypes, but, at the same time, pay attention to the research that suggests differences between male and female leadership styles, and teach women how to make the most of these inborn traits.
• Go beyond the creation of women's leadership programs to track the actual number of females in leadership positions throughout your company. If there only are a few, spend time with those few to learn how they got to where they are, and how your learning department can enable other women to follow in their path.
Constructing Equal Opportunities
For Western Summit Constructors Inc., women's leadership development is a top priority, but not one that comes with its own designated program, says Bilingual Training Specialist Stephanie Taylor. The company gives women the same amount of attention as men in all of its training programs, including those focused on leadership. Concentrating on equal representation during the training process is essential, says Taylor, given the struggles women still face in the construction industry- something Western Summit is trying to change. "We include women in every training program we offer," she says, "as well as in our internship program, mentoring program, and leadership succession program. We have begun to collaborate with our parent company on a "Women in Construction" leadership conference that is held annually, and intend to get more involved in recruiting women as entry-level engineers in our company."
Taylor says the company understands how far it and the construction industry have to go in promoting women into leadership roles. Female representation in Western Summit, she says, is less than 15 percent, and most of those, Taylor points out, are in administrative support positions. "Our training specialist is very involved with our local chapter of National Association of Women In Construction and often finds ways for the company to get involved in sponsoring networking events where we come into contact with other successful women in the field."
In a male-dominated industry such as construction, women combat more than the usual stereotypes of women in leadership. "Women have to work hard to prove they are capable of the same work as men and that they understand the business as well as their male counterparts," says Taylor. Rather than create a new set of values for its female recruits, the company focuses on the same ideals it holds any of its employees to, whether male or female. "Our first approach in preparing them for the challenge is making sure we recruit based on our core values. If we find women who have the same love for people, innovation, and integrity, along with a can-do attitude, they have won half the battle," she says. "Our second step is setting them up with a mentor who is well suited for their current skill set and able to prepare them for their next step within the organization. These mentors typically are men who have proven they have no gender bias, and with their influence, help the new females assimilate into our culture."
At the same time, Taylor says Western Summit is conscious of the differences between male and female leadership tendencies, and how those differences can be optimized for the company's benefit. "Women tend to be less assertive and more thoughtful, therefore, they tend to do a bit better when it comes to negotiating contracts or change orders," she says. "We often utilize women in this capacity whenever possible. Women also tend to make better instructors in our academies, as they are more empathetic with the students and [able to] focus on getting them trained correctly, so we utilize them in that role, as well."
Western Summit's efforts at keeping in mind rising female talent is showing evidence of success, as it now has three administrative departments,Taylor says, that are well represented when it comes to female leadership: Human Resources, Accounting/ Finance, and Business Development. "And in the field operations, our project coordinators are all women," she points out.
Taylor says she is optimistic about the future of women in corporate leadership, at her company and beyond. "I think the future is bright for women in construction in general. By 2015, women will make up a majority of the workforce, and that is something smart employers will have to pay attention to, even those that are traditionally male," she says. "There is currently one woman [at Western Summit], our business development director, who is on a succession plan that will bring her to a seat at the table with senior management. We are working toward getting others headed in that same direction."
What It Takes (for Women) to Win
Tenacity and hard work are the values most of us are taught as children as key to success, but for women in the corporate world, it may take a little more. According to experts in the field of women's leadership development, women have made progress, but still have a long way to go to ensure the next generation of leaders includes its fair share of females.
First, the good news: Generations X and Y at least grew up seeing, if not experiencing, women in powerful positions. "Rearing certainly differentiates Generations X and Y from Baby Boomers," says Selena Rezani, author of "The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead but Won't Learn in Business School." "To an extent, many of us saw women leaders in the news-and even if they symbolized singular successes, it helped to normalize the idea of a woman at the top. We internalized that a woman in a position of power is possible, just uncommon."
The bad news? As well prepared as women are today, they still aren't achieving on par with men in corporate America. "Women today are more equipped than ever to hit the ground running at jobs. They make up the majority of university graduates, and yet they get stuck in middle and lower ranks of companies, often overlooked for top roles," Rezani says.
Rezani recommends companies make "an enterprise-wide commitment and priority to move women from lower and middle ranks to leadership roles. They can't just broadcast an announcement or add women to their list of initiatives, they need to ensure their commitment has teeth," she says, pointing out that Procter & Gamble, for instance, has done this successfully by linking executives' compensation to their record of helping mentor and advance women.
Women need to be shown how to make the most of what they bring to the C-suite table, says Catherine Kaputa, author of "The Female Brand: Using the Female Mindset to Succeed in Business." Kaputa says the psyches of men and women are distinctly different, and that can be used to women's advantage. Women, she says, are especially intuitive and empathetic, thanks in part to higher levels of hormones such as estrogen and oxytocin. Kaputa's advice: "Use these emotionally driven strengths to be open and responsive to others' feelings and build strong and healthy work relationships."
In addition to helping women make the most of their inborn strengths, Helene Lollis, president of Pathbuilders, Inc., a firm specializing in women's development and mentoring programs, says companies need women's mentoring programs that provide "focused development and broad exposure for high-potential talent." She says companies also should provide "access to senior leaders through structured methods such as lunch and learns, special projects, and developmental roles assisting key executives." She says organizations also are seeing success at promoting women through the use of "high-impact affinity groups built around clearly defined, development-focused goals and programmatic offerings such as seminars, mentoring, and educational experiences."
Company initiatives around women's leadership are helpful, but what also helps is for training managers to pay attention to the unique abilities of the women they supervise, says Andrea Sittig-Rolf, owner of Sittig Incorporated, a professional training and coaching firm. "Companies should recognize the individual talents of the women working for them, and give them initiatives to drive, or projects to work on, that are well suited to the personality and skill set of that individual," says Sittig-Rolf. "I think it's important for the company to say to the woman, 'Here is the bottom line of what we're trying to accomplish,' and then let that woman figure out how to get there."
Young women also need to be taught how to become "persons of influence," says Roxanne Rivera, author of "There's No Crying in Business: How Women Can Succeed in Male-Dominated Industries." "When a company wants to nurture a young woman, I think it should emphasize that one of the things that will help her build her credibility and expand her knowledge is to get on boards and advisory committees, write articles for local trade publications, and do things that will help her get known outside the corporation." This strategy could be just what your young female leaders need to take the next step, says Rivera. "Perhaps you will sit on a philanthropic board," she says as if speaking directly to one of those promising young women, "and do things with that board that will bring recognition to your company, and, in turn, will bring recognition to you."