The workplace has so overwhelmingly changed since the 1950s. Yet many of the leadership and management programs, policies and practices still in use today at many large corporations had their philosophical beginnings back then, with men planning how to best lead and manage huge workforces comprised almost entirely of men.
The marketplace itself has undergone dramatic changes. Women today dominate purchase decisions in virtually every consumer category. Yet many of the marketing strategies, selling techniques and buying assumptions can be traced back to the thoughts and actions of men and how they’re inclined to sell and buy cars, homes, computers, food, insurance and health care.
The way companies have worked in the past may not be the best way to work in the future and prior success is not necessarily a guarantee of that in the future.
What’s not being taken into account and brought into balance is the complementary way that many women think and act when it comes to their leadership, management and business strategy. Unfortunately, several large companies today without this line of sight fall into a women-focused initiatives frenzy.
They send women to universities for leadership and management development, put them through sales-training programs, have them role-play assertiveness in conflict-resolution workshops, all instructing women how to behave like men to survive and advance in the world of business.
They’re singularly focused on reaching numeric goals and not encouraging culture change, hoping that addressing one agenda will eventually take care of the other.
While producing some modest inroads, these and other decades-old programs haven’t helped women advance in male-designed corporations.
Women in male-designed corporations
The major reason is that the mind-set that creates these programs, with the best of intentions, is not acknowledging the environment that women are coming into. It’s not recognising the value that women bring in thinking differently from men when solving problems or making decisions and actively seeking to blend the talents and skills of men and women – at all levels of leadership.
Established businesses often fail to discover breakthroughs primarily because they stick to their rigid formulas rather than pursue new ways of thinking. Like mosquitoes stuck in amber, these large corporations remain frozen in the past while entrepreneurial companies led by men and women, across all industries, are nimbly moving forward and shaping this new business world.
Forward-thinking entrepreneurs are seeking out and capitalising on the blended instincts of their leaders and managers and not focused on fixing women to act like men and adhere to a limited paradigm of business.
They’re challenging conventional wisdom and running circles around the behemoths by being more fluid and flexible in policies and procedures. And they’re constantly seeking innovative ideas and strategies to improve business operations and grow their markets. They are closer to the pulse of the marketplace and realising there is more than one business model and path to success. Two of our clients are involved in such a pursuit.
In 2008, American Express reviewed the composition of its workforce and discovered something surprising and disappointing given all its efforts to create greater gender balance within its leadership ranks. While women made up more than half its employees, and a third of the top 500 positions, women were disproportionately less prevalent at the senior level and practically nonexistent at the top. Company leaders set out to discover why.
One finding across the studies was perplexing and its potential solution “elusive,” according to Valerie Grillo, American Express’ chief diversity officer. “We found the higher a woman rose in the company, the more male-influenced the environment became around her,” she said.
“After 15 years of driving for gender equality, the gender balance had not changed at American Express precisely because of the culture at its most senior-most levels.”
“At historic companies like ours, it can be easy to rely on approaches that have worked in the past,” Grillo said. “But by taking the time to teach our leaders,” to appreciate diversity, she said, “we shifted mind-sets. It was an ‘aha!’ moment for many of our executives, and almost immediately we started to see a positive change.
“As a customer-centric organisation, creating an inclusive culture is the only way for us succeed,” Grillo added. “We have a lot of diverse talent here, both in ideas and background. Ensuring they can be their true selves has helped us to connect and better service our customers in innovative ways.”
Today, American Express, a client of our firm since 2002, has had some of the highest percentages of women in its senior management and leadership ranks. President Ed Gilligan said: “We know in order to succeed we must create a workplace that embraces diverse opinions and empowers all employees to reach their highest potential. This spirit of inclusiveness enables us to make better decisions today to accelerate our growth for tomorrow.”
Realising that just hiring more women doesn’t solve the problem was Deloitte’s breakthrough insight. Before its aha! moment, the firm couldn’t explain the high turnover of women in its North America division, a trend that was costing the company tens of millions of dollars every year.
The company, another client of ours, was losing more women than it was hiring. And in exit interviews, the departing women didn’t offer any specific reason why they were opting out, aside for personal or family-related causes. They didn’t want to burn bridges by speaking about real reasons for their leaving or risk being tagged as negative by competing firms.
When we conducted post-exit interviews several months after their departures, we discovered the reasons why Deloitte’s women executives were quitting. They did not feel valued in what they deemed a very male-influenced environment and many believed they would never make partner.
Deloitte realised that its focus on doing things “by the numbers” was costing them a lot and getting the company nowhere. It had spent money to get talent only to lose it because of the environment.
Once the company saw past the numbers, it made more valuable discoveries: Deloitte learned that men and women don’t often think through issues, make decisions, lead teams and engage clients in the same fashion.
Ultimately, they came to the game-changing realisation that it’s not merely a balance in numbers but the balance in contribution that gives a sense of satisfaction and worth to men and women individually and economic value to the organisation as a whole.
Deloitte’s new insights changed the mind-set of the organisation. Managers realised how much the company’s diverse client base valued the different perspectives brought by Deloitte women and began to view partnership in a new light.
It became the first organisation in its industry to focus on retaining women and men as partners with less than full-time work commitments. In a little less than two years, the turnover rate of women in the accounting division dropped from 27 percent to 11 percent.
In our highly developed global business community where new ideas and talent are increasingly in short supply, the successful organisations today are led by men and women with an entrepreneurial spirit – leaders who recognise that there’s a deeper merit in gender diversity and committed to change beyond quotas, sameness-thinking and one-size-fits-all meritocracies.
The successful companies will be those, regardless of size, who will secure and use the best talent in the marketplace by embracing gender equality in value and welcoming diversity of thought.