Why we need to develop women leaders of the future

A few steps that organizations and their boards can take to help women achieve their leadership potential and get the representation they deserve

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Leadership can be a lonely task, especially when you are outnumbered as a woman in an organization where you spend the bulk of your waking moments. Since I started my career in the 1980s, I have always worked in male-dominated industries, often without a single woman in my peer group.

While Indian companies have seen some positive change in recent years, women are still under-represented in leadership roles. There are only eight female CEOs in the BSE 500 (under 2%), a number which is only slightly more positive among management teams.

Whilst I have had a long and varied career in some fantastic organizations, I often wish that I had been more vocal in furthering the cause of gender equality. Earlier, I was reticent as I believed I could only advance professionally if I behaved more like the men I was surrounded by, and make them forget that I was “different”.

As an adviser to boards and CEOs, I now make a greater impact in getting them to think differently. There are a few steps that they can take to help women achieve their leadership potential and get the representation they deserve.

Leadership pipeline

In today’s talent-starved world, CEOs and boards are increasingly recognizing that it makes sense to include women in the talent pool. However, as a result of the “leaky pipeline” of talent, it is usually difficult to find capable, experienced women who are able to take on leadership roles. In India, many of the business leaders I speak to bemoan this fact. Although they have a healthy percentage of women entering the organization at the entry level, by the time they look for candidates in the middle management ranks, there are very few left and there are almost none at the senior levels.

There are several factors that influence women’s decisions to opt out. In addition to societal pressures, an important and rarely discussed factor is women feeling a lack of belonging and inclusion at work. Many women believe that their employers fail to recognize the individual potential of their women employees and what it takes to make them successful. It is hard to stay the course when one is not feeling wholly included. I myself struggled to balance the needs of my young children even as I drove myself hard to make an impact in an alpha male world. When women in India get married or plan a family, their colleagues (both male and female) often assume that is the end of their interest in furthering their career. The subtle and non-verbal cues given by other colleagues send out subliminal messages that usually end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Women don’t want favours! They want understanding; and they want to work equally hard and have the same challenges as their male colleagues! For example, a very smart CEO I work with gave me an interesting insight. She mentioned that when she gave a woman returning from maternity leave a challenging and demanding role, she rose to the task admirably. However, when she gave her an “easier” role to ease the transition, she often opted out.




An inspirational work environment can play a big part in encouraging female progression. Last week, we hosted an event to discuss how we can help women leaders of tomorrow achieve their potential. We heard from several Generation Y women that their generation is more motivated by a sense of purpose at work than an increase in compensation.

Analysing potential

Many organizations rely on performance as a sole indicator of talent, which can reinforce subconscious biases. Criteria used to assess performance are often based on measures developed years ago to judge largely male employees, and need to incorporate more gender-neutral measures of success. For example, Indian executives often believe that working in multiple geographies is a prerequisite for career growth. However, this is not feasible for everyone, and may prove impossible for women with family commitments.

We’ve developed our own “potential model” that works regardless of age and background to help organizations recognize their true talent. We look for four key traits to identify potential: curiosity, determination, insight and engagement. Women with these traits should be mentored, developed and supported, enabling them to rise to larger roles within the organization.

Leaders should clearly state that it is a key priority to increase the number of female leaders in their organizations. A key takeaway from the event we hosted last week was that this intent needs to be authentic. It should be demonstrated by promoting high-potential women and by giving them stretch and meaningful assignments, along with the support needed to succeed in these roles. Leaders should identify the platform and the processes for these women to get different experiences. They can do this by rotating them in different roles and putting them on cross-geography and cross-functional teams. For example, a young lawyer, in her first year on the job, said that when a senior partner asked for her opinion in a plea he had drafted, it was a great boost to her self-confidence that her opinion mattered.

Supporting women’s networks

The importance of building supportive networks for female employees should not be underestimated. I was the only woman consultant in my organization for 10 years and once a few more women joined our team, I immediately realized how I felt so much more supported.

Instead of trying to be “one of the boys”, we were able to celebrate that we were different and that we were able to provide new perspectives. We were also able to lean on each other and discuss our shared experiences of balancing a career and family. Happily, Egon Zehnder has elected more women to our partnership than men in recent years, and I am sure we will continue to be a beacon of change in the future.

These networks don’t have to be “women only” but can be mixed gender, as well as internal- or external-facing. Progressive organizations will ask these groups for feedback on policies around flexible working hours and maternity leave. Often women stay away from these groups due to their other family responsibilities; however, encouraging these networks will ultimately result in a friendlier working environment for all.

Looking forward

In recent years, there has been a trend towards introducing quotas in order to encourage gender equality at the highest level. Here in India, a law was recently passed ordering all firms to appoint at least one female director to their board. However, it has not worked as intended, with many firms adopting a merely cosmetic approach by appointing relatives of existing directors, rather than developing and recognizing new talent.

To truly achieve gender-balanced boards, we need to look more closely at and tackle some of the root causes of the current imbalance. A more sustainable way of ensuring equal representation is to concentrate on developing a sustainable “pipeline” of female talent. Through fairer systems of assessment and the creation of supportive networks, women leaders can be the status quo rather than a novelty.




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