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The Why and How – CEOs Must Prepare Their Best Female Executives to Lead

Editor's note: Women currently hold just 10%-15% of the senior leadership positions in corporate America, despite the fact that they now represent 58% of all college graduates and hold 50% of middle-management positions in the United States.   

Bentley’s Center for Women and Business (www.bentley.edu/cwb) envisions a world where women no longer make up such a small fraction of corporate leadership and where developing and promoting female leaders becomes a best practice across the corporate landscape.

To that end, the center recently brought together a distinguished 
and diverse group of business leaders to study how men in positions of organizational power and influence can help advance women to create a more balanced business model for future success. The perspective below, from Tom Peters, is one of many that came out of this discussion.

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I began addressing women’s leadership issues in the workplace almost 20 years ago. And, back then, I realized that greater inclusion and advancement was only going to come if we gathered marketplace statistics that proved the business case for female leadership in organizations. 

Social justice, equity, fairness and morality were (and are) all really wonderful positives, but they were not enough to fully convince male C-Suite executives to get behind women and move them up the ladder. That was the sad truth.

So it was a numbers game. But not any numbers. There were many contentious numbers, like ROI. When you asked if including and advancing more women bolstered and drove ROI, for example, the answers were unclear – and even controversial.

Those were numbers I stayed away from. But I didn’t stay away from sales numbers. These were safe, powerful and rock-like statistics. They argued clearly and without doubt that women should be in charge of designing and selling products – especially when you considered the fact that women represented huge percentages of buying power. If women bought the stuff, shouldn’t they be the ones deciding how to make and sell it?

I think you know the answer.

I also got many male executives to come along on this issue by performing what I called the “squint test.” I looked at a company’s executive team and its board, and if they didn’t look like the female market they served, then I told the CEO he was off base and headed in the wrong direction. It just wasn’t debatable. There just wasn’t any argument. I won. Women won.

Today, I use another line of “reasoning.”

I point out that we live in a global economy and that power is dispersed and informal. So a guy simply can’t issue orders and push something down the chain-of-command hierarchy. If you have a 40-person team, for instance, you probably have people in 17 countries and on four continents represented. It’s not about who has the most stripes on his sleeve anymore. And it’s really not about a table of organization either.

This isn’t to say that teams and organizations are flat right now. They’re not. But they’re not vertical either. They’re sort of a mess – but a good mess. And women thrive in this kind of situation. They negotiate so well, and they do so well in the relationship-building department, too. They find the right people and the right way to manage and produce in a complex and ambiguous and fluid environment. Men don’t do this as well.

I was talking to a sales organization recently, and I learned that women will often go three and four people deep within a customer’s company to build relationships and make sure the sale is completed. Men, on the other hand, for some reason, don’t go this deep.

I have two ideas that could help C-Level executives if they want to (and they should) get the best and right women positioned for future leadership roles within their organizations.

First, give the up-and-coming women managerial roles in independent business units. Whether that’s running a factory in China, a back office in South Dakota, or a supply-chain support group at headquarters – give them something to run; set expectations; and measure results. Just do it. And, within five years, you’ll have a strong group of female leaders who have been tested and are ready for even bigger things.

Second, if a senior executive fills a job with a man, ask the executive to explain why a woman wasn’t selected. We’re talking mindfulness and accountability here. Just ask why.

Let’s go back to numbers. About 60 percent of all college graduates are now women. So I could see 60 percent of middle-management jobs filled by women by 2025.

But that’s a long way off. Companies need to test their most interesting people now, to get them ready to take over a lot sooner than that. The markets demand this, and ignoring the markets is always foolhardy.

Tom Peters is co-author of “In Search of Excellence” – the book that changed the way the world does business. Sixteen books and almost 30 years later, he’s still at the forefront of the “management guru industry” he single- handedly invented. What’s new? A lot. As CNN said, “While most business gurus milk the same mantra for all its worth, the one-man brand called Tom Peters is still re-inventing himself.” His most recent effort, released in March 2010, was “The Little BIG Things:163 Ways to Pursue Excellence.” His bedrock belief: “Execution is strategy – it’s all about the people and the doing, not the talking and the theory.”

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