The HR Juggler

Women and Senior Leadership Part 1: Footprints in the Snow

Posted on: May 5, 2013


One of the most thought-provoking sessions I attended at the CIPD’s HRD Conference was entitled Senior Female Leadership Talent: how should female talent be developed for executive roles? It is no coincidence that it has taken me a significant length of time to write about it: there was plenty of food for thought and much to reflect on, both during and after the panel discussion. I had some reservations in advance about attending this particular session – part of me is inherently uncomfortable with intense discussions about any particular group in the workforce in isolation – yet I was glad that I did, as it was informative, engaging and interesting.

The audience was predominantly female and the pragmatic, engaging tone was quickly set by Dianah Worman, the CIPD’s Public Policy Adviser for Diversity, stating that it was “deeply depressing to still being having the conversation about why we don’t have more women in exec roles” and posing a number of questions, such as whether women deselect themselves from senior roles, whether the potential threat of boardroom quotas from Europe would do more harm than good and the need to retain the senior women in leadership roles, as well as simply achieving the numbers.

The point was also made early that there are, of course, no easy answers and that much of the content within the session could be applied to diversity in general: the need for fresh thinking, valuable insights and different perspectives within organisations and for businesses to reflect the diversity of their customer groups at every level of the company.  The starting point for conversations about diversity has to be the business imperative and benefit.

Fiona Cannon, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion from Lloyds Banking Group, shared some of their recent experience, and some of the background that led them to making some interventions aimed at increasing the number of senior execs within the organisation. Fiona described how, although 64% of staff were female, this was unevenly spread throughout the business and that at the point they decided to take action, women comprised 80% of clerical roles, 45% of junior management roles and just 17% of senior management roles. It was key for them as a business to have women in key decision-making roles, which had an impact of the customer base.

Lloyds Banking Group realised that they needed to do more to understand the specific issues at play and through a feedback process including focus groups and one-to-one interviews they identified a number of common factors: firstly lack of flexible working opportunities and a “19th century model of work” (for example working 9am-5pm, between the ages of 18 and 60) and a lack of role models of successful, senior women in the organisation. Their assessment of the most senior women within the company also showed that there were very few with real P&L experience and that most had become senior by virtue of being functional experts. When they looked closely elsewhere in the organisation, this was also reflected in more junior roles and they identified this as being an issue. Another common factor was the issue of the confidence of the women themselves that they were capable of doing exec roles to the required standard and cultural issues that had resulted from the command and control style from the top management during the merger period. Fiona made a great point that even if organisations have very good diversity at all levels of management, it is crucial not to become complacent, as it can potentially change very quickly, if other events affect the culture.

Fiona described the importance of undertaking long-term interventions rather than short-term initiatives and that the first action Lloyds Banking Group took was to address the behaviours that had become prevalent during the merger by introducing a personal code of behaviour and expectations and ensuring that these are built into the leadership programme and in every layer of management, with a view to these permeating the culture. This was described as very much an ongoing work in progress.

Lloyds Banking Group also set up an impact development programme for senior women, which included executive coaching and a sponsor (male or female) at the most senior level of the business. Fiona admitted that she had been cynical as to whether this programme would work, but stated that it had had phenomenal impact within the organisation, partly because it helped to build networks for women internally, which become a source of ongoing professional support for the women involved and also because it helped them to feel valued in the organisation. She reported that all of the women who have gone through this programme are keen to support and mentor other women in the organisation and that it has had a powerful ripple effect. The programme was initially focussed on the 40 most senior women and has now been extended to the top 100.

Fiona also related how they had targeted the layer of junior management, which often formed the ceiling for women at Lloyds Banking Group, beyond which many did not seem to progress. They developed a long-term intervention to develop junior management roles by assessing 40 or 50 women with high potential at this level and building a programme round them, to provide support and encourage them into business roles. They focussed a lot of their efforts on identifying role models for women one level up from where they were currently work, as well as role models who are working differently..the idea that she eloquently described of footprints in the snow. Recognising that not everyone necessarily wants to do the top job in an organisation, instead tapping into and developing the aspiration to get to progress to the next level up, paving the way for them to follow literally one footprint at a time.

All of this was really only about half of the content of the session (!) and rather than try to squeeze the remainder into one very long blog post, I am going to deal with the content delivered by the second speaker, Catherine Sandler of Sandler Consulting, in a separate post.

So….more to come from me on this…but I’d love to know what you think about what I’ve shared from the session so far.

7 Responses to "Women and Senior Leadership Part 1: Footprints in the Snow"

Great post Alison. You touched on a topic of interest to me. It’s wonderful to see the great strides Lloyds is making in creating opportunities for women to get into senior positions. I believe its a starting point. Dialogue on the subject should continue, without excluding men from the discussions. We need to understand their viewpoints and be able to influence a change in attitudes. Looking forward to part 2!

Thanks so much Stella, glad you found it interesting.

Thanks Alison – I truly believe this issue is very similar to any ‘diversity’ issue in the modern workplace – and in reality, it’s hard to come up with over-arching policies or approaches given that inherently each woman in the workplace will have a different perspective on what might work for them to achieve progression. In actual fact I also believe, having spoken to many women in our organisation about this over the years – many women don’t even know themselves what ‘the answer’ is for them. My personal view is that this is a slow evolution and over time gradually role models are emerging – but still the one thing that I do always hear from women in our workplace (and I have found myself) is finding a role model who really and truly demonstrates the aspirational balance is a hard person to find! (both work and home balance and balance in terms of working style and approach). Interested to read part two – thank you for sharing 🙂

Very interesting. I was quite cynical when reading but this approach seems very positive. Very big business centric though – was there any feedback from (shock) provincial sme’s? I ask because I work for an agency (technically a large us owned business but it retains its original family owned feel) and there are many female senior management role models here.

Important discussion and glad it’s happening. It needs to!

I believe the consequences failing to provide or promote programmes with gender emphasis are not understood and need to be writ large for decision makers in the organisation. Without a full appreciation of the consequences, it is almost impossible to get the true commitment needed for lasting, measurable change.

Many of these approaches are good, but need to be done continuously for the result to be sustained. I doubt many organisation could keep that up in the long term.

It reminded me of another article I read a while ago about the Dark Triad and the increasing prevalence of narcissists, psychopaths and machiavels at senior levels in many companies (I must say, not the one I work in, and I am not just saying that). A bit of googling, led me to conclude that these traits are significantly more common in men.

Easy to say, but attend to that mix of personality trait in the top team and my guess is you’ll find more women on boards but as a by product of becoming a hugely more effective organisation rather than as an end in itself. You’ll probably need the enabling pathways too for a while. Spare me the quotas… I suspect that will lead to senior women but primarily those who behave like men. That’s not really the point is it.

As usual, Alison’s piece made me think. As usual, I’ve managed to comment a week after it came out and the world has moved on. So, narcissistically, I thought I’d comment on my own blog where there is a slightly longer and much more self indulgent version 🙂

[…] read a blog recently by Alison Chisnell, , about gender balance in senior leadership […]

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