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A CEO’s Perspective on Building a Corporate Culture That Advances Talented Women

Michael Simonds: It’s essential for us to understand that women can generate powerful results without mirroring male expectations and male style. 

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 ( 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 is one of many that came out of this discussion.

When it comes to ensuring that women have the best chances of advancing in corporate leadership, our entire organizational structure and culture should support the idea that women in leadership are the expectation rather than the exception. In order to thrive, companies need the leadership of talented, intelligent women, and those women truly deserve opportunities to lead.

From my perspective, I consider what I can do as a corporate leader to support and encourage that culture while being as sensitive as possible to the realities we’re dealing with. Generalizing can be dangerous business, and it’s important to treat people as individuals and not to work from a set of entrenched assumptions.

My first approach involves setting clear and high expectations for both men and women who have great potential – those who are on leadership tracks. All executives, regardless of gender, have to know what they need to deliver on; how much time they’re going to have to invest in the job; and what kind of professional experiences they’ll need in order to grow and advance.

That way, they can plan and make sure the demands of leadership are compatible with their personal and family goals and lifestyle. This need is often heightened for women as they contemplate work/home balance trade-off decisions. For any leader, however, the support of a spouse or partner can be the critical piece to that puzzle, which is why our company involves spouses or partners whenever possible.

If there’s a company event, and an executive is getting public recognition, I want the spouse or partner there, front and center. They are part of our executives’ success, regardless of whether it’s a male or female executive. I want the spouse or partner to understand the magnitude of accomplishment and opportunity, and how important their loved one is to our company. I also want the spouse or partner to see that when our executives – male or female – make sacrifices to do a great job, we recognize that.

Along this same line, I call spouses and partners when we promote a male or female executive. It may be just a phone call, but in setting the tone for our culture, it’s a big deal. It’s a real recognition of the talent, drive, experience and expertise of the leader, and a recognition of the critical support the partner provides, as well.  

In addition, I try to actively encourage my top executives to challenge assumptions when they’re thinking about filling a senior position. In considering a woman for a new and expanded job, they may be tempted to dismiss her as a potential candidate if relocation is required, particularly if she has children and a husband who has a successful career. This kind of assumption is a barrier to providing opportunities to deserving female executives, and candid conversations about those assumptions can be a powerful force in shifting corporate culture.

Finally, it’s important for male executives to recognize that men are often much more assertive about promoting themselves and pushing hard for the next job. Women are typically less vocal. Leaders need to understand that, and make sure we specifically ask talented women executives what their goals and aspirations are, and help them navigate a path to get there. You may have to draw it out of them sometimes, but that process is essential to building the depth of leadership in any company.

It’s also essential for us to understand that women can generate powerful results without mirroring male expectations and male style. Men should have confidence when they assign a talented woman a tough or complex assignment, even if she doesn’t approach the work or drive results in the same way as her male counterpart. As male leaders, this may feel uncomfortable at times, but the best leaders recognize the immense and inherent value of varying perspectives, strengths and temperaments.

We know that strong, smart women in leadership roles contribute to better business results, and they contribute to a healthier corporate culture. A thriving business culture encourages diverse viewpoints and varied ideas about what it means to lead. When we improve the prospects for women in leadership, we all benefit.

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Michael Q. Simonds became President and Chief Executive Officer
of Unum US in July 2013. In this role,
he is responsible for leading Unum’s largest business unit. He received
his Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Anthropology from Bowdoin College. Upon graduation, he began his career with Unum. He left Unum to earn his Master’s degree in Business Administration from Harvard Business School, and then served a range of financial institutions as a consultant with McKinsey & Company before returning to Unum in 2004. Since that time, he has held various marketing, product and operations leadership roles, and was most recently Chief Operating Officer of Unum US.


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