Balance Matters—Here’s One Way to Get There

It seems like practically every article that comes out about women’s leadership is about where women are not. Two recent New York Times articles are good examples of this—the one I mentioned in my last post about “Why Women Aren’t C.E.O.s” was followed a week later with a piece on female execs finding “shaky ground” even after making it to the C-level.

Many of us are experiencing a growing fatigue around stories like this that continue to reemphasize the same points about women’s failure to conquer the C-level in numbers matching men. I think part of this feeling of disillusionment is coming from the reality that these articles aren’t telling the whole story—what’s missing is how to get where we need to go next. At SHAMBAUGH, we’re strong proponents that it’s time for a different, more disruptive conversation around new leadership models and changing mindsets.

A related point is that the usual statistics around women in leadership are demoralizing enough that it may seem like there’s no progress being made at all. On one level this is true, and on another, the fact is that we are in a phase of transition when it comes to evolving the face of leadership. A growing number of organizations are chipping away at what worked in the past, to gradually make room for something that works better today. To be more transparent about what I mean, men have traditionally comprised the majority in the boardroom and C-suite, so they have been the ones to create the current culture and norms. Without gender balance at the leadership level—a balance that disputes these existing “norms”—it’s hard to transform an organization. But in pockets of Corporate America, I’m seeing signs that suggest we’re getting ready for just such a change.

Here’s one of them:

I am coaching a new woman CEO in Europe who came to a company that was losing market share along with their top talent. Employee engagement was at an all-time low, and the members of the executive suite were all white men except for herself and one other woman who was the General Council.

This CEO realized that to change the culture and help the company get its mojo back, she would need to rebalance the leadership team to ensure all voices were on deck. The top executives needed to not only reflect the new marketplace, but also bring a blend of expertise, unique perspectives, and fresh thinking to the organization’s decision-making and strategic-thinking processes.

So the CEO’s goal was to identify and hire a new executive team that reflected a true 50/50 balance between men and women. Her imperative for selecting these leaders included hiring smart, relevant, and qualified people who could partner closely with her in ushering the company toward this major transformation. Her decision to go 50/50 was not based on thinking women were any smarter or necessarily better leaders around the table than the men who had traditionally made up the entire group. Instead, this CEO realized early in her tenure that the existing team’s decisions  were based on one-way thinking that had no room for divergent viewpoints. As a result, there was neither the healthy debate nor fresh ideas that were needed to turn the company out of the danger zone.

In explaining her decision to me, this CEO also emphasized the fact that if you have a majority of one kind of thinking or style—whether it’s based on gender, age, ethnicity, or common background—that perspective will most likely dictate the entire company’s culture and operating norms. She knew that what got them to their present level of success would not continue to work in the future. It was time for her to disrupt the old patterns and create a new culture of smart, reliant, and diverse perspectives. In addition to being intentional about making sure there was 50/50 representation of men and women around the executive table, the CEO also ensured they would work together on a new business strategy that reinforced the importance of a united vision and a unified language for leadership.

She has been in that role for eight months now, and the ship is definitely turning. By creating a balanced leadership equation, she has generated the cultural and leadership horsepower needed to address the critical new challenges the company faces, and to co-create—with a gender-neutral leadership lens—an industry-leading organization that is excelling in the marketplace. What’s important to recognize about this story is that this woman CEO did not change the balance of her team to play the gender card. Instead, she recognized that creating gender balance at the leadership level was the right strategy that would lead to better business. What’s your company doing to get there?

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Rebecca Shambaugh is a contributing editor for Harvard Business Review and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results



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