7 Ways to Build a Culture that Nurtures High Potential Women

The case for gender parity is clear. Leverage these guidelines to create a culture of inclusion in your organization.

High potential woman participating in a leadership development meeting

With International Women’s Day earlier this month, it seems a good time to examine how to retain the high potential females in your organization.  Why the female focus, you may ask? Surely it’s just as important to retain male high potentials? No question. However, the very approach to identifying high potential can put women at a disadvantage, so we need to put additional focus on this area. 
A recurring complaint is that high potential women leave organizations because “what good looks like” is too biased towards “male” behavior. Women who demonstrate these “male” characteristics tend to be derided for their behavior. Men are “driven”; women are “pushy.” Men are “achievers”; women “trample” over others. Recent research by Tzemach Lemmon (2015) talks about the need to embrace the “and” when it comes perceptions of women. In her study, it was finding that Marines and lipstick are not a natural association in peoples minds but when it comes to performance one should not have to take on male characteristics to be taken seriously.
So how you can identify whether you might be favoring male high potentials without even realizing?
Who came up with your leadership framework or high potential criteria? If it was your senior leadership team, how representative is that group? Are they unconsciously finding a next generation of leaders made in their image? If so, you could be losing out on the known benefits of a more diverse approach.
What are your additional criteria for being “high potential”? 
For global clients, international mobility is often a hot topic when it comes to deciding whether an employee has high potential. Established leaders can have a sense of “well that’s how I got here, so that’s how it should be for others.” However, could these criteria preclude some women (particularly those with young families) from putting themselves forward? What specific skills result from working elsewhere? Could these be obtained through working in another location in the UK, for example, rather than internationally? What stretch assignments could be created to help tackle any gaps in capability? It could be that only international will suffice, but it’s important to try and think creatively first. An interview with the authors of recent research found that, surprisingly, female employees defined as “high potential” did not tend to fit the stereotype of having to be available at all times. So it seems that what is crucial is to start thinking differently about role requirements. 
However, this latter organization had clear diversity goals in place and was committed to this philosophy. How can you create this in your organization? At Right Management we have developed a number of guidelines to help organizations build a culture of inclusion: 
  1. Change yourself first – Believe it or don’t bother. Change must be authentic. 
  2. Leadership has to own it, don’t delegate it – CEOs need to own the issue, rather than delegating it to HR.
  3. Flip the question: Ask “Why Not?” – Challenge assumptions. Instead of saying “She doesn’t have the experience,” ask “what do we need to make it work?”
  4. Hire people who value people – They will optimize human potential and be open to strategies that support One Life.
  5. Promote a culture of conscious inclusion – Generic programs don’t work. Accountability sits with senior leadership and decision-makers to promote a culture of conscious inclusion.
  6. Be explicit: Women when and where – Leaders must know exactly where women need to be to achieve gender parity at all levels and in every business unit.
  7. Be accountable: Set measurable objectives and achievable outcomes – Articulate a talent legacy – how things will change and what it will look like by when.
Once you have identified your high potentials, how can you support them to be as successful as possible?
Increasingly organizations have been setting up women-in-leadership networks to help women move up the career ladder. Even at Davos this year there was “The Girls Lounge,” an area where women could network that provided an alternative to the old boys’ clubs. However, within an organization networking can backfire if you are not clear on messaging. If senior women feel that the current generation should have to fight as hard as they did to get to the top (e.g. work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, trying to juggle everything) then their attitude will come across, even unconsciously.  While it is natural for them to feel that way, it is important to push for change, rather than accepting that things must stay as they have always been. 
Another sure-fire way of supporting high potentials is to provide coaching and mentoring. However, to manage this as effectively as possible it is important to identify which topics require mentoring support and which require coaching. While mentoring and coaching draw on similar skills (e.g. active listening, questioning), the main difference is that mentors typically have specific expertise in the area in which the mentee requires support, e.g. P&L management. 
Hopefully, this stimulates your thinking with respect to measuring and supporting high potential women in your organization. 
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