“I just don’t understand why they reduced my span of responsibility,” Amanda said. ‘’I’ve done everything they’ve asked of me over the 10 years I’ve been with this company. We’ve been growing rapidly, and I know I’ve tackled things that I had no experience with, but I’ve always made it work.”
Amanda was reeling from the news that her staff had been cut in half when a major function that was under her area of responsibility was shifted to a male colleague.
When I spoke with the CEO of the midsize company Amanda worked for, he described her as a high-potential talent, someone he hoped had the capacity to become chief marketing officer. That possibility now seemed in question as Amanda struggled to accept her new reality. From her perspective, she’d not only been stripped of responsibility, authority and power, she’d also been diminished in the eyes of her direct reports and colleagues and was having to prove herself all over again. Her confidence was shaken, and her sense of identity as a valued employee was shattered.
In reviewing Amanda’s decadelong career trajectory with the CEO, it was clear that she became known as someone who got things done, who readily took on any challenge thrown her way and capably navigated a variety of business transitions. Yet, a recent acquisition made by this fast-growing company posed a stumbling block for Amanda. She struggled to integrate teams from the parent company with the talent obtained through the acquisition, which resulted in rising competition among the teams and escalating in-fighting.
“We began to see some flat sides of Amanda’s leadership capabilities after the acquisition,” the CEO shared. “I just felt that we needed take a pause and rethink how prepared Amanda actually is for her role. We don’t want to lose her, but she’s just not ready for this next step.”
Like many women, Amanda was committed to preparing herself for success. She came into the company with a baccalaureate degree and obtained a master's and an MBA while working full time. Among recipients of bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, women are in the majority. Yet the same is not true with respect to training and development. Compared with her male colleagues, Amanda was more highly educated yet lagged in formal and informal development. -- as well as salary.
Data suggest that companies are more likely to send men to work related training by as much as 18%. The gap in the training that Amanda had received was now evident as she struggled with the complexity of managing an integration. Worse, this gap, now 10 years in the making, places Amanda’s retention in jeopardy as she grapples with the emotional fallout of what feels to her like a demotion.
There are five actions that you can take to better develop and retain top female talent:
- Acknowledge that the playing field is not level; uncover and fix gaps. By and large, women have addressed gender parity discrepancy by choosing to pursue advanced degrees, beyond those held by their male counterparts, just to place themselves on equal footing from a pay perspective. Examine the backgrounds of the women and men in your talent pool. Is there parity in education, role level, pay and development? Is it possible that you’ve deprioritized women for promotions, projects or other learning opportunities, especially women who have returned from maternity leave?
- Insist on gender representation in internal training and development programs. There should be at least equal numbers of men and women in such programs, but if your company is lagging behind in female representation at managerial levels and above, then management skill-building programs should exceed 50% women.
- Plan for success. Create individual development plans for talented women you want to fast-track to leadership. Be sure these plans include participation in robust external development programs with action-learning components and diverse representation across industries. This will increase exposure to and collaboration with other high potentials and allow talented women to test and hone their skills in a structured setting, preparing them for actual business situations they may face.
- Think beyond today. Structure the development of women for both current and future opportunities. Development plans should be forward-focused and include stretch assignments, exposure to senior leadership and projects that allow women to practice skills they will need for advanced roles. Progress on such plans should be reviewed at least quarterly.
- Sponsor and mentor. Women may mentor or sponsor other women, but you certainly want men to play a role. If your company lacks females in leadership positions, it becomes imperative for influential male leaders to sponsor talented women below the leadership level. Sponsorship means that these male leaders advocate for women, by taking responsibility for seeing that women are selected for high-profile assignments, learning opportunities and internal work teams. Mentorship means that male leaders are willing to guide women in their development by acting as a resource for information, feedback and advice. Make sure your sponsors and mentors understand their distinct roles and are prepared for the part they will play in the development of women. Providing them with training on unconscious bias and inclusion is a must.
The benefits of developing the women on your team exceed the contribution they will be able to make to the organization. You, too, will grow and gain important insights through the process.
Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.
When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or her blog.