June 14.2018, 10.50am

Women in business: How to prime your future leaders

“Run to the fire; don’t hide from it.”

It’s both a quote and a call to action from Meg Whitman, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Running towards the fire might be terrifying, but it’s the sign of a brave leader. Meg Whitman is an example of that: she oversaw the explosive growth of eBay and Hewlett Packard Enterprise as CEO over the past two decades.

Whitman overcame a pre-dominantly male executive-level workforce and a fast-paced, cut-throat economy to lead her companies to success during a time where many businesses struggled to evolve. Despite her achievements (and the achievements of women leaders like Whitman), gender parity throughout leadership is still a problem.

It’s becoming clearer as time goes on that dated succession planning, a reliance on ‘the old boy’s club’ and talent management tactics are likely behind companies’ inability to effectively empower their future leaders.

Women in leadership, by the numbers

The UK has made slight strides over the last decade as the country saw an increase in women’s board representation, growing from 11 percent to 28 percent on the FTSE 100.

Figures aren’t far off for senior leadership positions within companies: just 22 percent are currently filled by women in the UK. Furthermore, women across the workforce earn just 80 percent of their male counterparts.

These findings are outright in disagreement with McKinsey’s findings that diversity correlated with financial success:

  • Gender-diverse organisations are linked to a 15 percent increase in performance.
  • UK companies yielded a 3.5 percent increase in earnings before interest and taxes for every 10 percent jump in diversity among senior leadership positions.

The more recent McKinsey report, Delivering Through Adversity, also found:

  • A strong relationship between gender-diverse executive teams and high-performing businesses.
  • Diversity promoted better profitability and value creation.
  • The top-quartile of diverse companies were 21 percent more likely to outperform bottom-quartile businesses on earnings before interest and taxes.

Businesses starting to see the right path

Droves of companies have latched onto the business objective of developing a more gender-inclusive workforce, especially within the ranks of leadership. And while they’re certainly not running from the fire, they haven’t necessarily armed themselves with the right equipment to put it out.

Simply inserting high performers into an executive fast-track doesn’t necessarily equate to empowering women in leadership. One example of this is the rise and fall of Marissa Mayer – a brilliantly skilled professional whose aptitude in computer programming and artificial intelligence was the foundation of her meteoric rise through the ranks of Google.

In 2012, Yahoo! appointed Mayer CEO during the same strenuous period that its business model had grown stale next to the likes of emerging technology companies. Mayer’s tenure, which ended in 2017, was fraught with controversy surrounding her managerial style, which included an arbitrary employee grading system that dictated staff layoffs.

Mayer’s success at Google didn’t translate to her tenure at Yahoo! – and what we can take away is this: training and mentoring for all aspects of a specific role, rather than encouraging specialisation, is an underlying key to yielding a favourable outcome.

Companies are seeing the value in this; it’s why innovative organisations are pouring resources into creating a foundation to empower employees to reach their greatest potential:

  • VMWare hopes to break down systemic bias through its $15 million investment in a new Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab.
  • Accenture publishes its statistics on gender diversity annually to provide transparency into its hiring practice, and has multiple programmes available to advance the skill sets of high-performing women.
  • Google has designed policies to encourage women to have clear pathways to lobby for their promotions, after finding through its own research that they lacked the corporate structure to encourage it.


There are a growing variety of ways in which businesses are empowering the next generation, making it difficult to figure out which strategy offers the best return. What’s clear is that they’re long past static succession planning programmes that don’t evolve to meet emerging needs.

Transform your talent pipeline

Talent management is a core component of transforming training and mentoring programmes to empower women.

Creating dynamic, agile initiatives and leveraging the powerful functionality of HR and analytics software is helping businesses identify high-performing internal candidates – which results in a more gender-diverse workforce at all levels while maximising staff potential.

It starts with the understanding that succession planning isn’t just creating a list of staff and corresponding roles they’re expected to be promoted into. HR should evaluate the wide range of skill sets required to successfully acclimate to leadership roles, and build training programmes to develop them.

Secondly, while performance is certainly an indicator of an employee’s capabilities, it shouldn’t be the entire picture. Potential is an intangible quality that’s difficult to identify in someone, but it should play an important role in dictating where training resources go. Some people aren’t cut out to be leaders despite excelling in their position – remember, as with the case with Mayer, that the focus needs to be on developing a wide range of skills instead of specialisation.

Promotions have always been innately shrouded in secrecy, but manufacturing transparency into the process should be a goal for every company. Make information on requirements for roles, guidelines on why people are promoted and other similar data readily available to empower staff. A self-service portal can bridge the gap even further.

Finally, talent management should be a continuous cycle. This sounds like a given, but it’s surprising how many executive teams leave the decision of finding their next COO or CEO until they receive word that the current person is stepping down.

Don’t wait until then. Run towards the fire!


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Sharon LooneyBy Sharon Looney

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