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What I’ve Learned About Promoting vs. Squandering Potential

A 2016 Credit Suisse study showed that public companies whose management teams had at least 15% females, delivered 50% better growth than companies with less than 10% females in the C-suite. Yet, there is a leak in the female leadership pipeline: today, women make up 59% of college graduates, 39% of managers, and just 6% of CEOs.

So what can CEO’s and business leaders do to stop squandering the potential of their businesses and their female leaders? Plenty.

Since we are in the business of talent management and leadership development, we are especially mindful of walking the talk. I’ve experienced personally—and through the journeys of our clients—how leadership diversity can stimulate a vibrant breadth of perspective. Our own management team is made up of a diverse group of leaders, including 50% female executives. That perspective, in turn, powers innovation and business growth.

Creating meaningful and impactful diversity in your leadership team involves:

  • Adapting your strategies on hiring and team engagement
  • Using data to connect people to the best roles — and teams
  • Reinforcing culture with mentoring and continual feedback

Setting the Stage: What to Stop Doing

Creating a culture that promotes and protects a diverse range of input requires attention on what to stop doing.

First, avoid the ‘mini me’ syndrome: the self-selection and unconscious bias that connects us with people who are like us. This often translates into hiring people from the same alma mater, with similar backgrounds and credentials, and even participants in the same types of activities outside the office. Sure, it is comfortable, but here’s the problem: one of the two of us is now redundant. Having different strengths and capabilities is key to driving a business forward.

Another key mistake many organizations make is to get too caught up in role definitions. For example, assuming that the Chief Financial Officer with a CPA should be the domain owner of all things finance, and only finance. You could have a better culture-builder in your CFO than you have in your HR leader. Businesses that silo in roles and functions fall short. They need to understand diverse capabilities to power fresh thinking and new opportunity.

Start Creating a “Zone of Genius”

Ideally, a diverse leadership culture is one that empowers its people in situations and roles that complement their passions, to put them “in their zone of genius” to maximize their potential for performance.

In our company, we start at the individual level: every member of our team goes through a SuccessFinder behavioral assessment. We integrate the resulting insights into the planning for their role to succeed. We use benchmarked high performance data to combine with actual performance, for a more objective view of our current and future leaders. And we tweak plans along the way to build our leaders and help them adapt.

Our team members also examine the top 10 things they need to do in their respective roles. Inevitably, we are all less passionate about some areas of responsibility than others. And it shows: the results won’t compare.

This is where teams come in. We analyze the impact of our teams. We look at gap analyses on performance strengths and weaknesses and tie that to our organizational performance, and explore how to compensate for those gaps.

If you can align passion with ability, it is not work: it is a vocation. People don’t find that zone easily but purposeful attention to inclusive leadership can help.

Reinforce Culture with Transparency and Feedback

The final piece of the diverse leadership equation is ensuring reinforcement.

A new 2017 Diversity and Inclusion report from Bersin by Deloitte found that while 71 percent of businesses surveyed sought to build an inclusive culture, only 12% succeeded.

I benefitted from leadership reinforcement first-hand as a member of the Young President’s Organization. This global network of 26,000 members also creates small group forums with eight members, who assist in each other’s professional growth. I am lucky that for the past 10 years, we have had wide-ranging, inspiring perspective in my forum group, which includes two women leaders.

There, I’ve learned and witnessed the power of connecting perspectives.

It’s been hugely insightful to see the impact of the feminine instinct, and to look at the world through a female lens.

Sadly, it was not surprising for me to see the results of our recent SuccessFinder “Mission Imposter” CEO Research. In an analysis of 200 CEOs, women leaders matched men across all areas of leadership competence — but fell significantly behind men in their self-confidence.

I understood, completely. I was the Mission Imposter. I was probably over-promoted early in my career, advancing past leaders with 10 or more years’ experience. This was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. That insecurity was a real driver not to fail or appear vulnerable. On the plus side, it drove me to seek out mentors to help me develop areas where I was weak. But attempting to be the best in everything I did was not sustainable, or helpful.

The best complement I ever got was from the two women in my Young Presidents’ Organization forum group. After a few years of working together, they identified me as the 3rd feminine spirit in our group. By then, I’d learned enough from them to realize this gives me an extra edge; my vulnerability doesn’t expose me, it connects me. When I lead by example, transparently acknowledging what other people likely know about my strengths and weaknesses, it changes the dynamic of our business.

And that same transparency is crucial in ensuring that everyone in the business has continual, honest feedback, so no one is left guessing where they shine and where they need to develop. With this context, it makes it easier to ask for, or lend, a helping hand to be developed and to help advance others: to lean in, not fall back.

As I look to what’s next in inclusive leadership, I am reminded that the path to leadership starts early. One of my daughters took the SuccessFinder assessment before college, when she was unsure of what field to study. The assessment showed her high performance behavioral competencies for both law and business. She’s in her second year at Concordia in Montreal helping finalize a new track in the women’s studies program, exploring theory and experience. The leadership she’s already experiencing, aligned to her passions, puts her ahead of the curve — and definitely in the zone.

About the author: Ronald Dahms is the CEO of Optimum Talent and President of  SuccessFinder.