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Women in Business

Developing Candidates for Senior Executive Roles
By: Simon Russell
August 2014
“One of the more positive aspects of the drive for more women on boards is that it provides an even stronger impetus to improve diversity at the top of the organisation. Women are very good at holding up the mirror and saying ‘you’ve got to do better than this’.”

Throughout the EMEA region, organisations are coming under growing pressure from all sides to increase the representation of women on their boards. A number of mechanisms have been introduced to address the problem, with varying degrees of success. These range in effectiveness from legally enforceable quotas to voluntary targets to recommendations in governance codes. Quotas are as repellent to some national governments as they are essential to others, but they are becoming harder to resist as the number of women on boards rise, even though numerical change is no guarantee of board effectiveness. There is, however, a more systemic problem facing businesses which quotas are powerless to address.

Demand for female directors may be growing, but supply is problematic. Boards are rightly being encouraged to cast a wider net and bring women with different types of background and experience into consideration. But the fact remains that while there may be a place for women without commercial experience on some boards, nomination committees are still predominantly looking among the ranks of current or former corporate executives for directors who can bring experience of general management and P&L responsibility.

The fundamental problem remains that too few women fulfil their career potential by attaining senior executive positions, as successive McKinsey reports have clearly demonstrated, and this is severely limiting the pipeline of female board directors.1 Until women achieve something close to parity with men at the senior executive level, a concerted effort will be needed to ensure that the same happens in the boardroom — both as executive and non-executive directors.

To explore how companies are addressing the longer- term objective of developing board-ready female executives, we talked to a range of senior HR leaders, CEOs and board directors in France, Germany, the Nordics, South Africa and the UK. The aim was to try to identify the policies and practices most likely to ‘shift the dial’ in securing better opportunities for women, albeit across very different markets and political and social contexts.

This report examines some of the more enlightened approaches which are helping women in corporate settings to realise their full potential and suggests how women with the capacity for outstanding achievement in their field should go about identifying employers who will give them the greatest chance of succeeding.

Following concerted efforts in recent years to increase the representation of women on boards, the spotlight has turned on the executive pipeline. What are companies doing to encourage and support female executives to realise their potential and get promoted to general management and other senior positions in more significant numbers?

Our Research

We talked at length to over 30 senior HR leaders and board directors from a range of sectors in the EMEA region to learn what measures they are taking to address this issue and to retain highly talented women who might otherwise drop out of their organisations midway through their careers.

Quotas Are Not the Answer

Our observation prior to embarking on this study was that whatever the impact of quotas at board level, this approach will not work in the executive environment. Far more sophisticated initiatives are needed to achieve genuine, lasting improvement in the number of women equipped and willing to take on senior roles.

Barriers to Progress

There are many barriers preventing women’s progress. These include difficulties with work/life balance, an absence of role models, less mobility and misconceptions about women’s motivation that can disadvantage them during the promotion or recruitment process. Male prejudice, together with the perception that women are reluctant to put themselves forward for promotion, remains a barrier for many women, particularly in certain sectors, and continued effort is necessary to eradicate it from the workplace.

Metrics and Accountability Are Critical

Companies are responding to the challenge in many different ways, but two critical features are common to any successful diversity and inclusion initiative: robust metrics and management accountability. Diversity and inclusion initiatives also have a significantly higher chance of success if the organisation’s CEO is leading the way through genuine engagement.

Change Practices and Mindsets

Working practices and mindsets need to be fundamentally transformed. Line managers must be trained to become aware of and overcome subconscious attitudes that discourage women from joining their teams and progressing. Companies have to take action early in women’s careers, identifying and removing any systemic barriers that lead to attrition among women who have more to offer the organisation.

Support for High-Potentials

Mentoring, coaching and ‘sponsorship’ of high potential women by senior figures inside and outside the organisation is highly beneficial, as is active engagement by female role models in networking and support groups for women.

Long-Term Planning

Any single diversity initiative needs to be part of a long-term plan. Only patience and relentless action over time will bring about a change in the diversity of senior management teams.

Protecting the Employer Brand

How a company performs in terms of diversity and inclusion affects the employer brand and will determine whether it can attract the next generation of female talent. 

Read the full report.
1 Unlocking the full potential of women at work, McKinsey, 2012; Gender diversity in top management: Moving corporate culture, moving boundaries, McKinsey, 2013 ^

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