Path To The C-Suite - Helping Women Get Past Fear and Complacency


American Management Association | May 4, 2018

The AMA article, “Path To The C-Suite - Helping Women Get Past Fear and Complacency,” was authored by Russell Reynolds Associates Consultant Nada Usina and explained how to increase and manage diversity to bring more women into leadership roles. The article is excerpted below.

Nearly every company these days is concerned about how to increase and manage diversity, particularly when it comes to bringing more women into leadership roles.

Yet, despite years of effort and handwringing, few have figured it out. Often, that's because even the best-intended actions don't translate effectively to their target audience.

Russell Reynolds Associates recently surveyed more than 2,100 senior executives around the world and learned that men and women have very different perceptions of organizational efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. Overall, fewer than half of respondents are satisfied with the gender balance of their leadership, but women are much less satisfied than men. Forty-four percent of men feel their company's senior leadership team is sufficiently diverse, for example, compared to 30% of women.

When it comes to some of the most popular structured initiatives to improve diversity, such as advocacy by leadership and collaborative team structures, women are generally less likely to see them as helpful, compared to men. They also are consistently more likely than men to see problems with corporate culture and weak processes when it comes to attracting and retaining diverse talent. Meanwhile, 37% of women say they feel pressured to conform in their organization, compared to 25% of men.

These findings are discouraging, yet they don't mean companies should give up. In fact, companies can't give up. The results point to the basic fact that men and women often see the world in fundamentally different ways. If they work together, they'll have a competitive advantage. If the conversation is always one-sided, no one wins.

That leaves us with two questions: What can companies do to improve the experiences of female professionals? And, equally important, what can women do to become more engaged and feel more at home in the workplace. Avoiding another decade of well-intended but toothless efforts will take participation from both sides of the equation, along all stages of the pipeline.

We can think about the answers in three key dimensions: how to attract women to new opportunities, how to elevate women in an organization, and how to influence the world around the organization.


Approach women differently about new opportunities.
Take a lesson from Tinder: Men tend to swipe right far more often than women, but they're less likely to follow through on building a relationship. In at least one experiment led by Gareth Tyson, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, men followed through on a swipe with a message only 7% of the time versus 21% of the time for women. Women's messages also tended to be much longer than men's, bridging beyond the cursory "hi" to a more substantial introduction.

In the executive search world, this trend plays out in the form of women being more loyal and less likely to jump ship than men, even if they're not completely happy in their current role. I've seen this at every stage of the cycle, from approaching female executives about the new opportunities to pushing junior women in my organization to take ownership of their promotions and leave their old responsibilities behind.

When you call a woman on a search, she rarely responds to an email or phone call before she has processed whether or not the opportunity is truly interesting to her, what impact her departure would have on her current team, what the conversation with her boss would be like, and how a move would affect her family.

Men, conversely, are much more likely to jump into a process and ride along until they decide they don't stand to benefit from it anymore. In my experience, they're much more likely than women to get to the point of a job offer, only to turn it down. It's not that men are disloyal or unethical, it's just that making everyone else in the world happy is not their top priority.

What this means for companies: Be patient and clever when trying to attract women to your organization. Be prepared to ask multiple times, and try multiple avenues, such as introductions through mutual friends or networks.

What this means for women: Don't fear the breakup so much that you stay stuck in a bad – or even mediocre – relationship. Take the call or email, or introductory coffee and see where it takes you.


Fast forward. Mentorship programs and internal networking groups have their place, but what matters most in accelerating someone's career path is giving them the right kind of exposure to the things that matter: big accounts, key product development projects, and top executives and board members. Often, this means overlooking a lack of past experience or current job level.

It also means giving promising professionals a range of opportunities to prove themselves, rather than expecting them to fit a standard mold. At information services and software solutions provider Wolters Kluwer, for example, high-potential employees often get opportunities to participate in key task forces and speak in front of colleagues at annual summit meetings, but CEO Nancy McKinstry makes a point to give them many offstage opportunities as well. While it's not gender-specific, "not everybody feels that comfortable in an environment where you're being measured by how you contribute verbally on a team. And so you have to find ways that people can make a contribution, or find ways that you can assess their true capabilities if they tend to be more introverted by nature," says McKinstry, who is also a member of Russell Reynolds Associates'' board of directors.  

What this means for companies: Make a commitment to push high-potential women to places they don't necessarily think they're ready to be yet and support them around that. Aim to assess promising professionals on multiple dimensions, not just on how well they present in meetings.

What this means for women: Be willing to say yes before you think you're ready. Aim to surround yourself with people who will support uncomfortable conversations around your growth, your future.

To read the full article, click here.

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Path To The C-Suite - Helping Women Get Past Fear and Complacency