During my days as a higher education administrator, I asked a very talented deputy to develop a list of candidates for a senior executive role that had just opened.
She came back with excellent recommendations. There was just one problem.
“Why didn’t you put yourself on this list?” I asked her. “You’re more than qualified.”
She said she didn’t think she was the right fit.
I asked her why.
She said she didn’t have all the necessary experience for the job. But, in looking at their resumes, it was clear that none of the candidates were perfectly qualified. Almost no one ever is.
We had several more conversations in the days that followed. And after confirming that this job aligned well with her career goals and a bit more convincing from colleagues, my deputy ultimately ended up in that senior role. She has since advanced into even higher ones.
However, not enough stories involving talented women leaders end this way.
More women than ever before are moving into management positions, and that’s very good news. But the proportion of women in senior organizational roles globally has been stuck at 24% for more than a decade.
Why is this?
There are many factors — from gender bias and lack of equal opportunities to inflexible organizational cultures. Throughout my own experience over the past 40 years as a leader in the military, higher education, and nonprofit sectors and as a member of numerous boards, I’ve repeatedly encountered an inequity that all of us must recognize and address: women are often hired based on experience and accomplishments while men are frequently hired based on potential.
Research has confirmed this issue, which leaves women constantly having to prove their readiness and ability while male colleagues are many times promoted faster, despite having fewer qualifications. It’s not surprising then that my deputy who assembled that candidate list looked at her own experiences and determined they weren’t enough. But the truth is, I was looking for both experience and potential — and she had the best mix.
Having different hiring standards for women and men, whether they are intentional or the result of unconscious bias, is a serious problem — for women who want and deserve to advance into senior roles and also for organizations that, as evidence shows, will perform better if they have more women in top management slots.
Here are 3 practical strategies, drawing on the Center for Creative Leadership’s own extensive research, for turning the tables and betting on the potential of women in our organizations:
1. Create cultures that sponsor women leaders.
More than once in my own career, I’ve nearly talked myself out of pursuing promotions because I didn’t think I had the experience. Fortunately, my bosses thought differently and didn’t let me miss those chances. We need to do the same for all the talent in our organizations.
Data suggests that women are less likely to raise their hands for bigger roles and that they are more likely to be passed over for men whose potential is perceived to be greater, even when women are better qualified. So their bosses need to be much more proactive in helping women identify and act on potential promotions — and in advocating for them throughout the hiring process.
Ultimately, this is about changing organizational cultures in support of gender diversity, and senior executives are best positioned to lead that effort.
2. Deliver challenging assignments.
To help women prepare to thrive in bigger leadership roles, we need to be deliberate about providing challenging assignments that widen their range of professional experience and build new leadership skills. These are the roles my CCL colleague Nick Petrie refers to as “heat experiences” that are prominent in Silicon Valley and elsewhere — assignments that are new, uncomfortable, high-profile, and carry the risk of failure.
Those experiences help us all develop what Petrie calls “mental maps” — the playbooks in our heads gained from practical experience — that help us process information faster and make good decisions more quickly. The more mental maps we have, the more successful we can be as leaders.
3. Provide feedback and mentoring.
If we’re going to create challenging assignments, we also need to offer women the right support — through feedback, mentoring, and coaching that helps them learn from new assignments and apply that learning.
This needs to be a lot more than just a 60-minute conversation once a year during annual performance appraisals. As leaders, we should understand the aspirations of women leaders and then foster continuous conversations about developing the specific leadership skills needed to get there.
We must also help women widen their networks by making available mentors and coaches who can offer fresh perspectives and advice. Men, research shows, mentor men more often than they mentor women, and that’s something we can and absolutely must change.
There’s no reason to wait on any of these actions. As leaders, we can take them today — and there’s no doubt that emerging women leaders and our organizations will both reap the benefits.