After spending over a decade in the legal profession, much of it as a practicing attorney, I spent a great deal of time observing the career paths of talented women. Frustrated by the lack of inclusion of women in the partnership ranks, I often felt that those who led organizations were disconnected from the world women live in today. I now understand that what I thought was specific to one industry is happening throughout Corporate America. Women simply are not being advanced to high-level executive positions and partnerships at the rate they should be, and it’s having a negative bottom-line impact on businesses in this country; in fact, several studies have each concluded that companies with the best records of promoting women have a substantially higher return on equity, revenue, assets, and total return to shareholders (Shipman & Kay, 2009).
With that in mind, here are seven ways companies can retain and advance their talented women (written purposely from the collective “we”):
- Value flexibility. Many women don’t have linear career trajectories. Deloitte and Touche recognized this and created a program that allows women to create career paths that match their career goals and life circumstances. While some women may choose to move up the corporate ladder in a traditional way, this program allows women to design a more flexible path (Shipman & Kay, 2009). In addition, the folks at Capitol One recognized that workplace flexibility was not just a woman’s initiative, but something that was needed across their entire associate base (Shipman & Kay, 2009). Time is the ultimate precious commodity in this country, and women want more control over it.
- Let us play to our strengths. Research by the Gallup Organization shows that the most effective leaders invest in their strengths, surround themselves with the right people to maximize their team, and understand their followers’ needs (Rath & Conchie, 2008). We cannot be everything to everybody and remain effective, but we do have specific strengths, skills, and talents that can be leveraged.
- Understand that meaning matters – a lot. Dr. Marcia Reynolds says it best in her book Wander Women: “We want to work for companies that care about their employees, respect the environment, and support their local communities. We will eventually disengage if we don’t see how our work fits into a broader, more significant context” (Reynolds, 2010, p. 187).
- Give us a clear task then get out of our way. As a real estate attorney, I was often assigned projects by partners on my own team or other teams, and every now and again said partner would be reluctant to let me talk to all of the stakeholders involved in the project. That interfered with my ability to effectuate the best possible deal. As a manager, if you think that we’re not seeing the full picture or need to move in a different direction, help us to see other perspectives and paths, but know that highly-driven, talented women hate to be micromanaged.
- Foster a culture of optimism. Yes, we know that work is challenging and there will be many setbacks and adversities, but we also know that it’s important to be optimistic. Research shows that compared to pessimists, optimists are physically healthier, are less likely to suffer depression, are more resilient, and are more productive at work (Reivich & Shatté, 2002). In addition, optimists are realistic about the causes of problems they encounter and know how to limit the negative effects of those problems.
- Know the “30% Solution.” Simply put, women do things differently, and that’s a good thing. The idea of the 30% Solution originated during the Fourth UN Conference on the Status of Women, held in Beijing in 1995. Specifically, “the conference determined that the presence of 30% women in decision-making bodies is the tipping point to have women’s ideas, values and approaches resonate…The 30% Solution was viewed as the essential catalyst to reach equilibrium in decision making” (Tarr-Whelan, 2009, p. 19). How does your organization compare?
- Recognize a job well-done. Great work is the norm for top-performing women. Please make sure to acknowledge a job well-done even when our successes become routine. In addition, please acknowledge things other than bottom-line results. Recognize when we have used specific strengths to build good teams or navigate through a particularly challenging time. As successful women, once one project is finished, we’re on to the next challenge, so a kind word goes a long way.
The United States is lagging behind other countries that recognize the value that having more women at the top means to an organization. What would you add to this list?
Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths based leadership: Great leaders, teams, and why people follow. New York: Gallup Press.
Reivich, K., & Shatté, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Reynolds, M. (2010). Wander woman: How high-achieving women find contentment and direction. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Shipman, C., & Kay, K. (2009). Womenomics. New York: HarperCollins.
Tarr-Whelan, L. (2009). Women lead the way: Your guide to stepping up to leadership and changing the world. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.