Pathway to the C-Suite

The road to the C-suite for women, and in particular women of color, is still rocky. Four chief human resource officers explain how they are smoothing the path.

By Tanisha A. Sykes

In 1948, a century after the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, took place, women represented 31.3 percent of the labor force, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2018, women represented 54.9 percent of the labor force.

Women have made tremendous strides in the workplace. Findings from the “Missing Pieces Report” by Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity show the percentage of women on Fortune 500 boards was 22.5 percent by 2018 (but only 4.6 percent women of color) and the gender pay gap is smaller than it has ever been. What’s more, according to “The 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report” from American Express, the number of women-led businesses has risen by almost 3,000 percent in the last five decades. Yet there is still a lack of progress made by companies in getting women to the top.

“Women in the Workplace 2018,” a report from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, states that women are still underrepresented at every level of Corporate America. While stats from the latest census report show that women earn more bachelor’s degrees than men, the findings from LeanIn.Org indicate that women are less likely to get hired at the entry level. For management, the disparity widens, according to LeanIn.Org. For every 100 men promoted to manager, 79 women make the cut. As a result, only 38 percent of managerial jobs today are held by women. Companies report that they are committed to gender diversity, but progress is slow.

Women are doing their part by educating themselves, participating in training programs, and going for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men, according to the LeanIn.Org/McKinsey report, which drew data from 279 companies employing more than 13 million people. “And contrary to conventional wisdom,” the report states, “they are staying in the workforce at the same rate as men.”

Good intentions are well meaning, but it’s time for companies to take action. Four chief human resources officers (CHROs) talk about best practices for women’s advancement in the workplace in the 21st century and beyond.

The reality
“Women are not advancing beyond a certain level—in part because women are not already there to serve as mentors,” says Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at Workhuman, a company based in Framingham, Massachusetts, and Dublin, Ireland, that provides human capital management software solutions. Pemberton (who recently announced he was running for the US Senate as a Democrat in Massachusetts) says that none of the critical questions women face, from managing a return to work after maternity leave to advancing into the C-suite, are being addressed adequately. This, he asserts, risks everything women are trying to achieve.

Pemberton notes that in typical workplace meetings with all women, there’s a high degree of camaraderie, which leads to productivity. “Unfortunately, there’s not the same kind of connection, relationships, or urgency when it comes to the advancement of women,” he says. “Leaders must surround emerging talent with [female] peers across business units and professional associations who have achieved a degree of success.”

Women need to ascend to a higher level sooner, says another CHRO. “Probably 80 percent of our staff are women, so we’re getting opportunities,” says Darlene Slaughter, chief people officer of the March of Dimes, an organization committed to providing vital services for mothers and babies in Crystal City, Virginia, one of several offices for the nonprofit headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and Atlanta. What hasn’t changed is the pace of women moving up into higher C-suite positions. In her organization, which is 80 percent female, women hold four out of nine roles in the C-suite and 25 percent of senior-level positions.

At the CEO level, particularly for women of color, success has come in fits and starts. Only 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2 percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women. When Ursula Burns of Xerox quietly retired a few years ago as CEO and chair of the board, a dismal statistic shone brightly: there are currently zero African American women in charge of Fortune 500 companies, except for one serving in an interim post.

For women of color to advance, “you don’t need to create a new technology or methodology,” says Pemberton, “but, instead, we should be extending existing technology or support to help a population that is underrepresented.”

That’s why organizations like Catalyst, the women’s leadership and development organization, are so important, says Pemberton. “They provide networks within your organization, and they will match you with someone outside your org, such as professional associations.” One program, Catalyst CEO Champions For Change, involves a group of more than 60 CEOs who pledge to advance women into all levels of leadership. For women interested in joining a corporate board, Catalyst Women On Board pairs these women with experienced corporate members for two years. During or after this time, the “mentees” may be appointed to boards.

Sponsorship, even more than mentorship, can be critical for women. Research by Catalyst reveals that when women and men are in the pipeline, women start out behind and often remain behind men, even with mentoring. “However, when women’s mentors are highly placed, women are just as likely as men to get promoted,” according to “Sponsoring Women to Success,” a 2011 report from Catalyst. That’s where power and sponsorship intersect. As the report states, a sponsor goes far beyond offering general career advice: “a sponsor can propel a protégé to the top of a list of candidates or even eliminate the list itself.”

“It’s not that easy to attract a sponsor,” says Slaughter. “It’s usually someone who has been watching your career trajectory, and signals, ‘I’m interested in you and I’m taking you with me.’” Before a sponsor comes into play, potential mentees must make themselves attractive to the company. This requires a three-pronged approach, says Slaughter. “Really understand your transferable skills and have a 90-day plan of what you want to accomplish,” she says. “Next, do your homework about the organization.” Finally, build a strong network and engage in professional groups, which allows you to take ownership of your career development.

“We are very purposeful in how we bring people into our organization,” says Teresa Ascencio, chief people officer at Academy Bank and Armed Forces Bank, headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, and Leavenworth, Kansas, respectively. “Our company does community outreach and engagement, which helps us to compete for and attract the best talent.” Socially conscious millennials, for example, seek out companies that sponsor community programs or engage in employee volunteerism. These efforts help companies to stand out with future employees.

The best practices
“As leaders, we have to do that mentoring and coaching and sharing of successes and failures because that’s the road map that many women and women of color don’t get,” says Slaughter.

Slaughter is the first to admit that the March of Dimes, which is made up of a committed, dedicated staff of mostly women, could do more to advance women. After noticing that many of the development programs were online—which she calls “really passive” due to the lack of opportunities for interaction and dialogue—she developed her own mentoring group.

“One thing I’ve been doing is meeting with a small group of African American women in the organization who are very junior, like once a month,” says Slaughter. “We talk about conversations they have had [with managers]: how you begin to discern what’s really going on in an organization, and how you connect the dots.” When complex conversations are broken down by senior leadership, women can see the total picture, not just one piece of it.

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a Chicago-based food-processing and commodities trading company with approximately 40,000 employees, took a different tack to starting affinity groups. “Inclusion is the key to supporting diversity and a culture that creates the competitive advantage we seek,” says
Michael D’Ambrose, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at AMD, about the decision to use inclusive groups across the company to drive diversity and inclusion efforts versus employee resource groups (ERGs). “Our CEO leads our overall efforts with a diverse team of the most senior global leaders interacting with similarly diverse teams in each region of the world,” he says. When companies are committed to eliminating bias and driving inclusion, it aids in the “attraction, development, and retention of diverse teams. We believe that this is the true link to consistent higher performance.”

Instead of conducting diversity and inclusion training online, the company does the training live around the globe.
“Everywhere in the company, we have a firm commitment that we will not hire or promote unless we have different, diverse candidates,” D’Ambrose says. One mentorship program teams up senior women with an Executive Committee member to help them to identify and achieve their professional goals. The goal, D’Ambrose says, is to extend the program further to reach midlevel women in management positions.

Ascencio and her team at Academy Bank modified the bank’s employee recognition system to better engage and reward employees. The program, called the Six Pillars of Success, involves six elements: people and culture; commitment to service; communication; risk management; innovation; and technology. Employees nominate each other for big wins, such as hitting a sales goal, and for small gestures, such as always being polite or arriving to work on time. “We have about 1,000 employees, and in the first 15 days of rolling out the program, almost 100 awards were given,” says Ascencio.

Artificial intelligence may be the necessary sweetener for a better employee experience. “In the past, if I wanted to recognize someone for a job well done, I would [congratulate] that person, and then make an announcement at a meeting,” says Pemberton. “Now, it goes out on a company-wide platform where everybody—from your peers to higher-level leaders—can see it.” In addition, rewards for such behavior are more personal and customized. Some companies reward employees by connecting them to their passion, which gives them the independence they seek to fully engage at work. Other companies use analytics to match assignments to an employee’s greatest area of interest. Pemberton adds: “It shifts a culture, and serves as motivation for the employees in the organization.”

The future of work
The business case for diversity and inclusion is clear, and technological advancement is the epicenter. “You see the use of technology accelerated to reach talent earlier in the pipeline,” says Pemberton. “That’s where millennials and gen Z are. If you’re not in those worlds, you’re not considered progressive enough for them to want to work for you anyway.”

Workhuman uses artificial intelligence to find language, phrases, or terms that are connected with bias and unconscious bias. “When you are assessing candidates, AI gives you the ability to root out age, gender, and racial discrimination in the language,” says Pemberton. For example, companies that utilize AI can create a profile based on the actual qualifications of successful employees, providing concrete data that either validate or disconfirm beliefs about what to look for in candidates. This helps to “diminish bias in the decision-making process,” he says.

Academy Bank applies workforce analytics, a set of tools that measure, characterize, and organize sophisticated employee data. This software allows HR leaders to comb through mounds of data to identify which employees have the greatest potential for success. “It also helps us to identify an associate who is at risk of leaving,” says Ascencio. “We can personally reach out and ask, ‘What’s going on? What can we do to rectify the relationship?’”

The technology drills down on data points such as how long the employee’s commute is, whether an employee often leaves early or shows up late, or when an employee declines overtime while everyone else at the location partakes. “When you see those types of indicators, it’s time to wonder if there is a way to develop through some of these challenges,” she says.

The next generation of leaders
When it comes to hiring and retention today, employers are not just looking to check off skill sets—they are looking for fit. As a result, recent college grads need to mind their “softer side” says Pemberton. “I am asking questions that gauge the people skills, and I’m looking for candidates who execute, are detail oriented and solution driven, and work well in a collaborative fashion.” He asks them point-blank about a time when they faced a challenge and how they responded.

Academy Bank and other financial companies built on the relationship between banker and client are also looking at how recent grads connect with people. “That person-to-person, face-to-face connection is important because we are in the business of trust,” says Ascencio. If you can’t connect with people in a real, genuine way, that’s a problem, she laments. When asked about the company’s long-term plan to help women advance, she says that the company wants all associates to have the opportunity to “develop equally and be selected based on merit.”

In today’s technologically advanced agribusiness, D’Ambrose looks for grads “who are intellectually curious.” Campus visits, social media, and networking are some of the ways the company does outreach to the next generation. “We are looking for people who are innovative and want to challenge their thinking in new ways that can make a difference.”
So what are these CHROs looking for in midlevel careerists?

“You’re certainly looking for the ability to manage and develop people more than any other attribute,” says Pemberton. If you’re up for a high-level role, he says, companies already know you have the technical skills. At this level, there’s a keen focus on your leadership capabilities.

ADM is committed to developing all employees through individual development plans, continuous learning opportunities, and by providing unique experiences beyond their day-to-day roles. “It’s understanding: how do I help this person succeed in life, and then leverage that for work as well?” says D’Ambrose.

Academy Bank gives its managers broad-based exposure to leaders at the highest rung of the corporate ladder. “The more exposure that strong manager has throughout the organization, the more champions the manager will gain,” explains Ascencio. “With more champions, the influence and bias of a single direct supervisor is diminished.” The banks also ensure that senior leaders work together across business lines to give individual leaders “the opportunity to showcase their communication and critical thinking skills,” she says. As a result, rising female leaders gain exposure and opportunities. Taking into account all officers within the 1,000-person company, 50 percent are women, and 7 percent of them are women of color. In the C-suite, there are two women among the eight-person leadership team.

At least half of the workforce at the March of Dimes is virtual, yet Slaughter believes her organization has a responsibility in helping the staff become successful. The company is designing a midyear assessment process to see the opportunities earlier and help steer employees in the right direction. Her best advice to future female leaders: “Take your careers into your own hands. Women have to understand their strengths and be empowered to ask for what they need in support of their own goals.”

These CHROs from companies around the country all agree: Organizations that are serious about the advancement of women must have women in important and respected leadership roles, along with executives who signal confidence in these women leaders. They must work toward building a culture of inviting women not only to have a say, but to also to be part of making the decisions. DW

Tanisha A. Sykes is a career, small business, and personal finance writer and editor in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @tanishastips.



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