Have you ever had a car that always seemed to be leaking oil and your quick fix solution was to add a quart?
You knew deep down that there was something wrong with the engine but you didn’t have time to do the diagnosis or pay for the more extensive repairs that needed to be done. Well organizations can be like that too when it comes to a desire to change the gender mix of the leadership.
Over the last 20+ years, I’ve observed various ways that organizations have attempted to increase the representation of women at senior levels. I’ve also seen efforts to hire them from other organizations. A few have worked out well, but most have not. Why is that? Generally, I think it’s because the culture was not welcoming to the new female leader or because those individuals inside the organization were agitated that the new hire took a slot they had wanted and worked hard to attain. The bottom line is that they were envious. In addition, the senior most leaders that did the hiring thought their job was done once they found the candidate and brought her on.
Where I’ve seen it work is when there has been a support system in place for that new senior leader to effectively onboard into the organization. This meant having a window of time to get to know the organization and their peers in senior leader roles. This was done formally through one-on-one meetings and icebreaker interviews between the leaders, both in the office environment and in social settings. The senior most leader also made time on his or her calendar for regular check-ins with the new leader to see how the transition was going and offered support to accelerate the integration to the organizational culture.
Another effective tool was for the new leader to have a mentor. Someone the new leader could ask the questions they may not feel comfortable asking someone else. This mentor also helped share the “unwritten rules” of the organization and how things got done around there. It is imperative that the mentor be a well-respected leader in the organization because that sends a message to peers and underlings alike that the company is committed to doing what it can for the new leader’s success. It does not matter whether this mentor is a man or a woman. In my view, the critical component is that he or she is a well-respected leader in the organization.
My last suggestion is to consider providing an external executive coach for the individual. This provides a totally objective perspective and sounding board for the leader to share the experience in an unfiltered manner – all while getting advice and counsel as to how to address the challenges he or she is facing.
You may be asking yourself the question, “Don’t these ideas make sense for any new senior leader that may be brought in?” And the answer is yes. However, this becomes especially important for a new female leader who is entering an organization with the spotlight on her. Any time you are the “one of” or “two of” in your group, everyone is watching. It is not uncommon for others to be making judgments as to whether you’re “up to the job” and deserve coming in and taking a spot they had aspired to attain.
Hiring senior women leaders can bring an infusion of new perspectives and experience that would take years to build. But as with most things, it needs to be done in moderation. If the senior leadership truly wants to create a more inclusive culture and make it more gender neutral, just hiring in one or two or three women into senior positions is not the silver bullet to correct the past. It will take a variety of proactive steps to change the culture over time and providing the right support systems for the senior women hires is critical in the short and long term.