A few leading-edge companies are making real progress in increasing the proportion of women in their executive ranks by turning the problem on its head. Rather than focusing their efforts on fitting the candidates to the jobs (through, say, more mentoring and training), they are taking practical steps to make the positions more attractive to their already high-potential candidates.
Take Australia-based hearing-aid manufacturer Cochlear, which when faced with a chronic underrepresentation of women in its high-potential pool, made an effort to better align its leadership roles both to their candidates' individual strengths and to their individual career aspirations.
This might sound like a monumental task, but the core of Cochlear's Leadership Presence Program is a one-day workshop, supplemented with various pre- and post-workshop activities. At the workshop, women create a personal mission statement and map it directly to their career goals and the company's needs. This is a critical step for helping them to see that their personal strengths and passions can be directly connected to leadership career goals at the company. Then the program helps women build networks, by assigning them mentors outside their core area of work, to give them opportunities to present (and become familiar) to senior leaders around the firm.
Of the 30 women who have gone through the Leadership Presence Program, 68% have taken on new responsibilities. Some have moved vertically and some laterally, but in every case the moves are testament to an increased desire to apply their talents to the organization. Even those who have not taken on new responsibilities are showing increased levels of discretionary effort and intent to stay.
Other firms are smoothing the leadership career path by addressing the onerousness of relocating, often so necessary for building the experience and breadth of outlook needed for advancement. A barrier to anyone with a family, relocation is often a worse deal for high-performing, mid-level women loathe to interrupt and lose the income of their high-earning spouses. So it's no wonder that, our research finds, they are 13% less willing than their male colleagues to relocate abroad to advance their careers.
Nestlé took creative steps to address this problem, which its internal research confirmed was a barrier to advancement for both men and women, but for fully 80% of its high-potential women in dual-career families. Through its Self-Sustaining Dual Career Network, Nestlé tackled the problem head-on in two ways. First it extended relocation support to spouses, offering such services as guidance in navigating, and entrée into networks in, the local job market. And second, recognizing that many other large, global companies face the same challenge with dual career mobility, Nestlé invited them to join in a program in which spouses of transferred executives are alerted to promising open positions in other companies. Although no formal preference is given in hiring, increasing people's awareness of these opportunities expedited spouses' job searches.
One appeal of this program is that spouses of high potentials are often high potentials themselves. Nestlé reports that the spouses they work with tend to speak at least three languages and have an MBA or equivalent. Multinational recruiters are happy to discover such qualified candidates.
The success of the Dual Career Network is reflected in its growth from enabling 350 spouses to find suitable positions in seven companies in 2011 to about 700 working in more than 30 in 2012. At present the network is based in Nestle's home base of Switzerland, but already some of the multinationals are working to set up similar networks in other countries. Smaller organizations are seeing similar results using LinkedIn and Facebook groups for relocating spouses — creating ways for employers and spouses to connect in advance of moves.
As women "lean in" to opportunities, leading organizations are meeting them half way: designing roles that map to the personal ambitions of diverse talent and helping remove the barriers that impede their progress. They are seeing their investment in such programs return significant benefits in increased effort, more effective teamwork and collaboration, and decreased turnover — without breaking the bank.
And an added bonus for those considering whether to follow suit: when the word gets out that this is how your company treats its rising leaders, don't be surprised to find a fresh crop of new high-potential, high-performing diverse candidates knocking on your door.