Retaining Women Leaders

We’ve been writing and sharing data that continuously supports that when organizations have more women in senior leadership positions and on corporate boards, performance increases.  Yet, as organizations are initiating women’s groups, diversity officers, and inclusion initiatives, the numbers of women at the top continue to stagnate.  In my research for our new book, ONE:  How Men Partner with Women for Gender Equality, I found that strong women leaders often have access to sponsors and mentors, and many of them are men.  These women leaders believe strongly in the purpose of their work, and the positive impact it has.  We also found another pillar focused on coaching.  Managers of strong women leaders coach them, provide real-time feedback and help her be her best possible self.  They do not solve her problem for her, they help her self-discover her own plan forward.

To increase gender equality at the highest levels of organizations, we must engage women in other ways.  In this post, you will learn proven strategies from our research that outlines these three pillars.  To retain top female talent, leaders focus on:

  • Improving access to sponsors and mentors
  • Aligning their value and purpose with their work
  • Coaching women to success

Improving access to sponsors and mentors

Mentoring and sponsoring are different.  When a sponsor sponsors a woman, he or she is often being her voice when she is not there, or amplifying her voice when she is there.  Mentoring is different.  Mentors have been in your shoes and done what you want to do already.  They give advice, share stories, and brainstorm with you.  Also, notably different than coaches.  Coaches promote self-discovery.  Coaches often have not walked the path that you want to walk.  Mentors have.  The best mentors are vulnerable, sharing their lessons learned and mistakes so that their mentees do not have to make that same mistakes, and they also provide a safe place for her to open up and share her fears, her ambitions, and what she really wants.  Mentees drive the relationship and often set the agenda, identify objectives for the time together, and own their goals and development plans as a result of the discussions.  As a mentor, fit is key.  Making sure you have expertise in the areas she wants to develop expertise is crucial, and then connecting her with other resources to explore is also important.

This is a major area where men can support women.  Men currently have 95% of the CEO roles and 80% of the board leadership roles.  They are in the best position to support women as mentors and sponsors.  While women often find women to be their mentors and sponsors, the sad reality is that there are still so few women at the top that have the ability to be a sponsor or have done what you want to do as a mentor.  The old school women mentor women principle is not effective.  Organizations that promote men mentoring women are more diverse.  And, women need to feel comfortable asking men to their mentors or sponsors.  The male allies I have been talking to recently are honored to be a part of your journey.  There are so many of them out there.

As an organization, it is important that you support women beyond women’s groups or diversity initiatives.  Having a mentoring program that formalizes the relationships across the organization or outside of the organization is key.  Also, improve access to sponsors through talent management systems and development plans that outline what women want to do next with the positions that will be available short and long term.  Sponsors need to know what she wants and align it with business needs.

Aligning their value and purpose with their work

Women care about their work beyond just a pay check.  In our research, we found that this is especially important mid-career when women have the challenge of balancing work and life.  The balance is impossible; there are good weeks and not so good weeks.  It is never in perfect equilibrium.  Yet, women that are successful often share they are very diligent about channeling their personal purpose into their work.  They align their work activities with what drives them.  Whether that is coaching employees, being a subject matter expert, or solving problems, they know what they want, what they are good at, what they are passionate about, and align their work with what they have the skill and will to do best.  This also benefits organizations as they bring their skills and wills to the table in a way that yields higher productivity, quality, and business results.

Organizations that have regular touchpoints with their employees to learn about their needs, their skills, and their wills are far more successful.  Struggling organizations with diversity often make assumptions about what women want without ever asking her.  “She may have another baby, she won’t want to travel for that job.”  When, if there had been regular conversation about her interests, that organization may have found quite the opposite about her travel interests.  You do not know until you ask.  And once you know, plan for success collaboratively through engaging her in the process and providing options based on her unique purpose.

Coaching women to success

As a Certified Master Coach, I often teach leaders to be coaches.  The word coach too often elicits memories of past sports coaches, or the misperception that it is all about giving advice, or even being a therapist.  Not at all true.  Professional coaches help people self-discover.  Fear is a primal emotion that cripples people’s ability to rationally think their way through situations.  As a coach, creating a safe place for women to be heard that truly focuses forward, rather than backwards, is pivotal.  I remember being relieved as a coach to hear my coach say, “You do not have to have all the answers.  In fact, it’s better if you do not know.”  By parking your own assumptions and experiences, you are far more likely to listen for cues and focus her forward.

So, this may also be scary for those that see something in a woman that does not see it in herself.  For these common, yet dangerous to pretend invisible scenarios, I will share two of my very favorite coaching questions.  For those in the throes of self-doubt and do not believe that they can self-discover ask:  “what if you did know?” or “what if (insert trusted ally here) were here, what would they say?”  Women know their own answers to their own problems.  They just cannot see past their own self-limiting beliefs.  They see what they choose to see.  What if you see something different?  Help her see it too.  Women are more risk averse.  Part of it is primal, part of it is gender socialization.  She may be choosing the more cautious, “safe” route, thus not seeing what you see.  Self-fulfilling prophecies are real perceptions, and not really real in reality.  Our brains tell our bodies what we are capable of and our bodies choose to comply.  Just talk to any recovering patient or successful athlete, and they will tell you.  The hard part was mentally getting there.  When they do, their body delivers accordingly.  One of my favorite mantras for women is, “she believed she could, so she did.”  So true.

We interviewed some amazing women for our new book on male allies.  Successful entrepreneur, speaker, and influencer, J.T. O’Donnell, reflected on the story of her male ally.  “He didn’t treat me like a daughter, he really just coached me.  He believed I had my own answers.  This was an “aha” moment for me.  It was never a sit down, do this, this and this, it was such a departure from the other male mentors that I had had because I did find that some just really treated me like a daughter.  He looked at me as a peer.  To think that I might be able to give him value back someday for what he did was a total game changer for me.  He is absolutely one of the biggest male allies out there, and if we could clone him it would be a great thing.”  For other potential male allies out there, J.T. indicated that “what’s most important is they understand we’re not coming to them to solve our problem.  I think that there’s a common misconception that if I’m coming to you then I want you to solve my problem.  I don’t.  Guess what?  I’m going to solve my own problem.  What I’m looking for is a sounding board and what I want you to do is listen to me and if you see something in my mindset that might be myopic or maybe you think is misguided or maybe I should be exploring, ask me a question.”

Remind yourself, she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.  As an organization, it is critical that there is support for her to increase her own awareness about her own unique purpose.  She may not have the ability to self-discover her own recipe for success.  Gender diverse organizations have great coaches sitting on the sidelines helping their teams self-discover their own path forward.  Women respond well to coaching, and being able to solve their own problems.  As organizations train their leaders to coach rather than direct, they empower women to own their career paths.

Remember organizations that have more women in leadership outperform those that do not.  How will you retain your women leaders?

If you liked this post, join our free online workshop October 5 to learn more about Retaining Women Leaders and participate in collaborative exercises to lead women even more effectively.

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