Take a Deeper Dive -- An Examination of Executive Conscience

After presenting at a recent conference, I found myself at lunch sitting next to a CEO who seemed anxious to talk to me. He shared that although his company had made significant investments over the past few years in diversity training, Lean Six Sigma initiatives, and team development, he still wasn't satisfied with the speed of transformation within the company. Women leaders were advancing too slowly, silo mentality was rampant, and employees were disengaged. In short, though the CEO had dove into these important initiatives with both feet, the results were underwhelming, and he asked me what to do.

I recommended a "deeper dive" -- which I call an examination of executive conscience -- to break below the surface of the issues. Here's how it works. Say that you're trying to understand why only around 14 percent of women in the Fortune 500 hold executive officer positions, as confirmed by the 2013 Catalyst Census. You could look at the behaviors of those who are doing succession planning and talent development -- but this won't tell you the whole story. You could examine company policies, practices, procedures, and controls -- but you probably won't find much wrong there, since these were put in place to drive equity and fairness in hiring.

To understand why things are the way they are, you must delve deeper. You have to examine the mindsets and underlying issues within a corporate culture to find out what's behind the bottlenecks.

As I explained this, I saw a light bulb go off in the CEO's head as he considered his senior leadership team -- those with the most influence in promoting candidates to the executive ranks. He shared that while most of his male leaders favored promoting candidates based on their ability to demonstrate linear, criteria-based thinking, this could put high-potential women at a disadvantage. He realized suddenly that the women on his team often made decisions by examining interconnections, tapping on the ideas and perspectives of others rather than making unilateral decisions. Because of this, women in the pipeline for promotions might be getting overlooked in favor of more hierarchical, "objective" decision-making skills.

I helped clarify the CEO's ah-ha moment a bit further. While women's tendency to take a relational approach to making choices could be perceived as less strategic and less confident than the men's approach, such differences are necessary to provide a rich balance in different styles of thinking. As proven in many studies, diversity is good for business and for the boardroom. If those most influential in a company's talent development process are unintentionally creating a bias toward traditionally male decision-making styles, then the company is missing out on the depth and breadth of insight and experience from which it could be drawing.

By recognizing that mindsets like these were subtly and informally influencing the values, beliefs, and norms of his organization, the CEO made an important realization. Although the company's actual HR policies were "politically correct" on paper, many of those in leadership positions who execute those policies in practice were making choices and judgments differently based on how they're "hard wired." The result was a dearth of women leaders in his organization, leading to a vicious circle of "like promoting like." The CEO admitted that this was his first glimpse into what was really behind his organization's executive conscience. He now knew where he could start to make some changes that would lead to better results--by recognizing and rewarding the value in a wider range of thinking styles.

In the next blog post, we'll discuss additional examples of the influence that mindsets have on corporate culture, and learn how to get rid of these types of underlying assumptions that can sabotage an organization's best efforts at cultural change.

To find out how organizations can eliminate outdated assumptions and move toward true cultural transformation, visit www.shambaughleadership.com and learn more about SHAMBAUGH's Managing Gender Differences Offerings, Integrated Leadership consulting and programs, as well as Executive Coaching, Leadership Programs, Keynote Offerings, Sponsorship Consulting and our signature Women In Leadership and Learning Program (WILL). A SHAMBAUGH consultant can help your company take a "deeper dive" on this critical issue.