Females Wanted

August 6, 2015

Joanne Rencher

According to the Pew Research Center reporting on women in leadership positions, progress in the corporate world is slow (though not as steady as many of us would like).  Just 20 years ago, there was not a single female CEO in a Fortune 500 company.  Today we have a whopping 26.  But, it’s the leadership pipeline that is critical for us to keep our eyes on.


There is some progress there as well.  Women are increasingly taking roles in managerial positions, according to Pew.  Over half of the management positions in 2013 were held by women (52.2%, up from 30.6% in 1968).  But we’ve not managed to close the gap in senior management roles.  In 2014, only 22% of top leadership roles in mid-market businesses throughout the US were women.


Where can we find and develop the women needed for this pipeline filling?


It has been estimated that more than 70% of the HR field is female.  And, despite views that the top seats in HR, particularly in high visibility companies (think AT&T, GE) are held by men, I’ve read reliable estimates that roughly 67% of those top roles are also held by women.


In the March 9th publication of Human Resource Executive (HRE) Online, they ran a piece on the ‘most powerful women in HR’. I celebrate those women.  To varying degrees, I work to emulate them.  Their success is my success as a woman.  But (and I need to be careful here as I know a couple of them) what kind of power are we talking about? 


The real power and influence is in the world of business (profit and nonprofit in my view) at the highest ranks.  It’s where decisions about customer or stakeholder bases are made, shifts in financial models take place and product and service launches receive the yes/no votes.  The very sustainability of the particular enterprise is held by those vaunted folks in the C-Suite.  That’s where more women need to be.


The leadership pipelines to the various C-Suite roles for women can’t be robust because the intake is still too low.  And, once those heights are finally reached, there’s no real bench to draw from to keep the female pipeline flowing. Add to that the realities of biology in starting families and striving for the trumpeted work/life balance, and you have the perfect recipe for a lack of female leaders in the pipeline.  At best, you’ll have a smattering.


So, what’s a solution to all of this that has not been discussed nearly as much as it should be?

Marry the numbers of women in HR with the lack thereof in the broader business world – and you could just get a wonderful solution to a nagging problem. 


My vision for the pipeline of female leaders is one where the HR professionals are intentionally groomed for C-Suite roles.  The path is made clear and the conversations around the 9-box move beyond the HR trusted advisor supporting the CEO in the placements of performance potential.  The HR leader herself is actually on the 9-box grid, with a clear and customized development plan supporting her growth.


That path needn’t always lead to the CEO role, but there should at least be a deliberate plan to begin with.  It could very well be that your top HR leader has the skills needed to move into a Chief Marketing or Chief Communications role.  Other functions would be well served to embrace this concept as HR leaders bring change management, organizational redesign, team leadership and other key skills to the table.  While those HR leaders may need to fill other gaps in, say, financial management, they have a heckuva head start on other skills – skills whose absence are often the cause of many strategy derailments.


Why not find ways to build the pipeline of female talent from the wells of HR.  That talent could well naturally transition into key leadership roles.  The world of business needs us to tackle this pipeline building more creatively and open-mindedly.


Are we ready for this? It is indeed overdue.


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