The Missing Link: Moving Beyond First-Level Solutions to Women's Leadership

It has been a hectic but exciting fall packed with travel and speaking engagements at executive forums and conferences nationwide. At these events, I've continued to explore with companies this perennial question: "How do we attract, retain, and advance women leaders?"

My most recent talk engaged top executives from Fortune 500 organizations who are responsible for talent development, or play a key role in talent recruitment while running a significant part of their organization. Most if not all of these well-known organizations have invested significantly in their high-potential women and have developed programs to support women leaders.

Yet disappointingly, the majority of these executives shared with me that all the hard work and investment in these promising initiatives has not resulted in the desired progress. They were well aware that the primary goal of these programs is to help facilitate and grow the next generation of corporate leadership, of which women are a key component. Yet despite their best intentions, something was clearly not working, and they could not pinpoint the confounding issues despite their investment in their top women.

Common Problems, First-Level Solutions

We've all heard the problems before, so I'll just briefly touch on what's becoming obvious now to executives across the board (and on the board)--as well as provide some first-level solutions. However, I want to emphasize that as stand-alone strategies, none of these suggestions on its own is powerful enough to break through the corporate glass ceiling or help women get off of the "sticky floor":

  • Problem: Our society and most corporate cultures are still hard-wired with the traditional biases and assumptions that put men and women in separate boxes--as opposed to one common box--when it comes to exploring potential leadership greatness.

  • First-level solution: Companies striving to achieve a balanced leadership model that values and blends the unique attributes of both men and women.
  • Problem: In addition to these external limitations, women have their own "sticky floors" when it comes to reaching higher levels of leadership. These are the self-limiting beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors that hold women back from achieving their key goals and career objectives--particularly concerning leadership.
  • First-level solution: Women taking more control of their destiny, declaring their value, and stepping up into the appropriate position on their senior leadership teams by looking within and acknowledging their unique strengths.
  • Problem: The dearth of women in senior leadership is not just a women's problem--it's everyone's problem, including men. Men play a significant role in this situation, and based on the sheer numbers of men in senior roles, they can seriously impact the lack of women in leadership--but they often don't.
  • First-level solution: This problem is based more on lack of awareness than lack of concern about the issues. Since many men remain unaware of the significant role they can play in turning things around for women leaders through their engagement and support, they fail to see themselves as a major part of the solution. Men can take action to mentor, sponsor, promote, and advance women into senior leadership.
  • Problem: Many organizations have done a lot when it comes to leadership development and diversity training in an effort to fill the leadership pipeline with qualified female candidates--but despite this, there are still too few women in the top spots.
  • First-level solution: CEOs and other senior leaders need to fully embrace the business case for actually advancing more women to the senior ranks by expressing this as a top priority on the strategic agenda and closely monitoring progress.
  • In my next post, we'll explore a strategy that incorporates this entire "ecosystem" to reach better results than any of these individual components can achieve alone.

    To find out how organizations can eliminate outdated assumptions and move towards true cultural transformation, visit A SHAMBAUGH consultant can help your company take a deeper dive on this critical issue.