6 Tips for Setting up a Women in Leadership Initiative

So you’ve decided you want to increase the proportion of women in your leadership team – now what? How do you go from an ambition to implementing a plan that makes a material difference?

This is moving steadily up the agenda for many employers, and it will not go away. I think it’s fair to say the business case is now well-known and accepted – having more women in senior management is better for your bottom line. It’s also increasingly important to demonstrate you’re taking this seriously as part of your strategy to attract key talent (both male and female). And in the UK there’s the added pressure of the forthcoming gender pay reporting deadline in April 2018. Part of the requirement is that employers provide a written supporting statement. The recommendation is this includes a narrative explaining why the organization thinks a gap is present and what they intend to do to close it.

Whatever the driver, launching a Women in Leadership Initiative is no longer just the right thing to do, it presents a huge opportunity to become a leader in your field. So where do you start?

1. Be clear on your vision

Easy right? You want more senior women. What does that mean? What level in your organization? And are you going for 50:50? By when? Getting aligned on your key objectives at the outset is critical not only for the team delivering this but also to ensure the message lands successfully with your employees.

2. Gather data

Once you have your vision you need two key sets of data:

  1. Where you are today – to understand what it would take to make your vision a reality (i.e., how many women need to be recruited or promoted to reach your goal) you need to know where you are today. How many senior women do you have? How does this vary by level and department? What’s your attrition rate and therefore how would this play out?
  2. Why this is the case – you also need to understand why you don’t have as many women in senior roles as you want. Is it flexibility? Culture? A lack of sponsorship? You may well have a good sense of this already, but I always recommend asking the business. This will give you evidence on which to build your plan. It’s also likely to not only confirm your gut instincts but also throw up a few issues you either hadn’t thought about or hadn’t realized were as big a deal as they are. Best of all it’s a great way to begin engaging your employees.

How do you get this data?

Working out where you are today should be a relatively straightforward numbers exercise. To find out why you are where you are I recommend a combination of anonymous surveys of your top leaders (male and female) and 121 interviews with a subset of female leaders. This will give you both quantitative data (e.g., x% of you told us lack of sponsorship was a key challenge) and qualitative data (such as “I look at the work-life balance of senior leaders and I’m not sure I want that”).

3. Secure senior level buy-in

If you’re not the CEO / MD or don’t have their support, now is the time to get it. Ideally, they’ll chair the initiative but if not a member of your Exec team who can make sure they are fully engaged. This senior-level engagement is crucial – you need both the leaders in your organization and the employees on board to make this happen, and this is where they’ll take their lead from.

4. Build a bespoke plan

Armed with your evidence, you’ll have a much clearer picture of where you need to focus on making a difference for your business. There are typically three areas to consider:

  1. Recruitment – is your challenge in attracting female recruitment? Is that in particular areas or levels? Would you benefit from reviewing your job descriptions or short-listing procedures? Would your hiring managers benefit from unconscious bias training
  2. Retention – is there an opportunity to increase retention? Could you offer more support to parents or review your policy on flexibility?
  3. Progression – could you do more to ensure your aspiring female talent is ready for the next move? Do they need bespoke training? Would a senior sponsor help?

5. Establish governance

This can be one of the harder aspects to nail. Once you have an idea of what you want to do you need to figure out the best way to run it. Do you want this to be an HR-led initiative or do you want the business to take the lead? Which will land best in your organization? Is there a need for permanent heads or can you run it with a Working Group with day jobs? Often it will evolve from one form to another but whichever you choose the most important thing is to treat it like you would any other business project and make sure roles and responsibilities are clear.

6. Test and learn

With your initiative taking shape and the buzz growing around the business, it can be tempting to jump straight to a company-wide rollout. But much of what is in your plan will be new. So back to the point of treating this like any other business project – it can be far better to run focus groups to test out new processes and pilot sponsorship or development programs on a small scale initially. Test and learn before a full rollout. This will not only ensure your final program is more likely to land well it will also demonstrate to employees you are serious about this. You’ll create excitement and a desire to be part of it…which as with any major business change is most of the battle.

About the author: Catherine Oliver is the founder of Parents@Sky and co-founder of Sky’s Women in Leadership initiative. She has recently founded the Bluebell Partnership, a consultancy to help guide businesses through the challenges of setting up their own working parent and women in leadership programs.

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