5 ways to increase your female CEO Talent Pipeline

Inspired by a conversation with Susan Metcalf, CEO of Chief Executive Women

“It will take 65 years or until 2086 before women make up 40% of line roles in executive leadership teams, based on CEW Census trends from the last five years.”

CEW Census report 2021

The lack of female representation in executive leadership positions in Australia (or internationally) is not a new conversation. But it persists, signalling the complexity of the issue. This is not a straight-forward conversation with simplistic issues and even more simple solutions. Rather, this is a tapestry of occurrences and outcomes at social and business levels. A natural reaction is to be overwhelmed and frustrated with the sense of the inability to affect change. But in a recent Leadership Diet Podcast with Susan Metcalf from Chief Executive Women, the conversation forced me to consider what was something that can be actioned now, by the people who listen to this podcast?  Here are five ideas.

Chief Executive Women (CEW) has 640 members who hold leading roles in Australia’s largest private and public organisations. Through advocacy, research, targeted programs and scholarships, they help to remove the barriers to women’s progression and ensure equal opportunity for prosperity. Through the conversation with Susan, one area that is vital to ensure this is to make sure there are enough women in the actual talent pool from which CEOs are drawn. It is possible but it will take effort.

Australian women are the most educated in the world, according to Nabila Ahmed from Bloomberg, and have more women graduating from university then men. Access to education and intellectual capacity is not in question. Yet, women make up a quarter (26%) of roles on Executive Leadership Teams and there are only 18 women CEOs in the top 300 ASX-listed companies (6.2%).

There is a gap here that can be addressed. What we also know is that most CEOs (78%) in 2021 were appointed from line roles with profit and loss accountability and women make up just 14% of those line management roles across the ASX300. The pool from which CEOs are sought does not contain enough women. There are women in business but they are more often employed in senior functional roles such as HR, Corporate Affairs, Marketing, Sales, Legal, Risk, Strategy or Technology which are not traditional CEO pathways.

So, something that is available to everyone who aspires to CEO and / or executive leadership is to pursue roles and experience in the line roles with carry profit and loss accountability or commercial and operational oversight. These are springboard roles, and the objective has to be to get more women exposed to these roles, if having a stronger or equal representation of women in CEO roles is the outcome being sought. This is also an obvious call out to every organisation, mentor, CEO, people leader, leadership and organisation development practitioner is to create, promote and enable (even mandate if necessary) the movement of female talent into these roles.

“You can’t be what you can’t see”
Marian Wright Edelman

1. Actively recruit women into line management roles.

If there is a shortage (which is often the feedback that we hear) learn from organisations that recognise supply challenges and war for talent. If your current processes are not working, then learn from someone else. In recent years, SEEK.com as example has recognised the supply of women in broader technology sector with product development or coding skills was not as readily available from the existing graduate pool. So, they have gone further down the supply chain to the high school students. They provide opportunities for high school girls to attend multi day learning workshop within SEEK before they complete HSC, to encourage enrolment into technology style degrees. Whilst this is a long-term strategy, it does address the pipeline of future female leaders at the very starting point. Interestingly SEEK are noted in the CEW report as having a 50:50 split at the executive leadership team. What can you be doing beyond asking the recruiters to provide you a shortlist to ensure that you are attracting quality candidates into your pipeline? Who is currently working in the line that could be encouraged and mentored to pursue leadership positions?

2. Ensure that all women in executive development programs have experience in a line management role as a cornerstone of the program.

This may require a fundamental mindset shift for the organisation, but it sends a very clear message about the seriousness with which CEO/ C suite succession and development planning is taken in the organisation. Sometimes this might take encouragement to move people from their comfort zones. My experience in assisting C-suite development suggests rotation of roles or expansion of responsibilities amongst the expanded leadership team, fosters greater understanding of the whole of business view among the leaders and brings a stronger decision capability to strategic conversations, rather than what is often considered to be a functional only approach.

3. Create organisational cross functional projects that have P&L or operational responsibility, with the female talent as the leader and include these in development processes.

This comes back to two core principles. One is if organisations truly want to have their client base represented by the make of their leadership teams, then having a larger number of women represented in key commercial roles makes sense. Secondly, if there are obvious springboard roles that lead to CEO succession pipelines, then get more women into those roles as often as possible. Exposure to commercial and operational oversight comes with specific roles. But exposure can also come from cross functional organisational wide projects.

One healthcare company we have worked with created a role that encompassed pre-product launch activites, sales force efficiency activities, data insights gathering and GTM analysis with a heavy lens towards their R&D expertise. The female leader of the R&D department took this role as an expansion of her functional leadership role. Five years later she became the Managing Director, which would have been unheard of had she only stayed in her functional role.

4. Remove the structural barriers.

Too many times we have seen examples of a role that is a perfect next step or a building block to a wider scope of leadership been created, only to find it has inherent designs in it that limit many candidates, especially working mothers. Next time a new role is created, or an opportunity emerges that allows for a vacant role to be redesigned, as part of the design process, also ask, what is in the design and nature of the line role that would make someone say “no thanks” to doing it? Maybe it takes more design work to enable flexible work arrangements and normalise uptake across levels and genders. Let us not forget the extraordinary pivoting that has taken place all over the world in 2020-2021 from perspectives that were once held as sacred cows. Once held views sounded like, ‘they must have x and y to do this senior leadership role, or they must be based in X location to do this role’. Many of those pre held convictions have been proven to no longer be true.

5. Be unapologetic about actively sponsor rising women.

The notion of targets and quotas raises concerns and can be an emotive conversation, depending on the points of view expressed. My personal view is that targets are already in place for almost all aspects of business. As a former headhunter/ search consultant, I never left a client briefing session without absolute clarity on what the organisation was targeting as the ideal candidate they wanted me to find. Targets exist whether they are overt or not. The use of mentoring, network opportunities, study programs – many of these already exist in organisations. My view is there is still room for specific focus on developing line management aptitude and appetite for women who demonstrate capability in their functional expertise and illustrate promise of more, were the doors to be opened to different opportunities. This can sometimes be a very challenging hurdle for individuals and organisations to overcome but the numbers are in – there needs to be a change and this is something that can be done.

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Why we need more women in the C suite with Susan Metcalf from CEW

Susan Metcalf is the CEO of CEW, Chief Executive Women, a member organisation representing more than 800 of Australia’s most senior women leaders. CEW works to remove barriers to women’s progression and create equal opportunity for everyone.

In this episode we discuss:

  • The latest census report from CEW and the ‘dismal’ results it shows in terms of the percentage representing of women at CEO and CFO levels in the ASX 300,
  • Why Australian women are the highest educated in the world yet suffer from an equality perspective due to the cultural issue of mateship,
  • How come 54% of the finance sector are women yet 90% of the sector CEO’s are men,
  • How to stoke innovation through gender balance,
  • The talent supply chain and springboard roles,
  • The notion of targets and quotas,

and a whole lot more.

Leading large government departments and why this is so different to what we might expect; with Dan Hunter

Dan Hunter is a very seasoned leader with experience in hospitality, water infrastructure, M&A asset sales, social healthcare and industry sector leadership. His first CEO role was leading Healthshare, a $7bn, 7000 people organisation that services the broader health sector in NSW, Australia through managing the catering of 60,000 meals per day into hospitals, managing the linen services, the ambulance service and the payroll for over 160,000 employees.
We discuss;
  • How to overcome being passed over for a role,
  • Taking the leap between sectors and how to take advantage of unexpected opportunities,
  • Learning to listen intently,
  • What is it like working for a Government Minister compared to the private sector,
  • How to create a space for inclusion and psychologically safe environments,
  • Why leadership is not a democracy and selling ice cream is not for leaders,
  • What has Jeeves the butler got to do with anything!
  • Understanding how to work with different stakeholders,

and a whole lot more,

How to develop great judgement as a leader with Meahan Callaghan

Leaders, particular executive-level leaders, rise and fall on their ability to have good judgement, whatever that is! Yet, most leaders never learn how to develop this situational level skill.

I am joined by Meahan Callaghan, CHRO for RedBubble. She is one of the most experienced CHRO/ HRD’s (Chief People Officer) in the technology sector globally having led the people function in three different technology unicorns.

We discuss:

  • the importance of HR professionals to get some line experience in order to fully understand the implications of implementing HR policies,
  • Why leading a call centre is one of the fastest ways to realise the clashes between commercial realities and people aspirations,
  • What is judgement?
    Classic mistakes aspiring leaders make when learning how to utilise good judgement,
  • Why is the notion of ‘good judgement here looks like this’, so important?
  • Five key steps organisations can use to help elevate good decision making amongst leaders,

and a whole lot more…!

How to develop good judgement as an Executive and why this is so important

What I learned from talking with Meahan Callaghan

“Good judgement is a bit like personal values, you don’t know what is missing until it is not there. The quality of any of our leader’s judgement is only recognised when the consequences manifest. And if the decision is deemed to have been a poor one, the leader’s judgement capability Is absolutely questioned!”

So said one CEO to me recently when we were discussing how can leaders develop their ability to make good decisions. I dare say we have all committed, observed, or been affected by poor judgement. Depending on the scenario this can land on the spectrum from relatively inconsequential to disastrous for the individual and their career, their team, and the organisation. Often the energy, effort, and cost (for all parties) needed to deal with the consequences (intended or otherwise) from poor judgement is significant.

Judgment is about making good decisions.
Real decision-making is rapid, biased, and subconscious. And we rationalize our decisions after the fact. Having good judgment mostly concerns fixing (or not repeating) bad decisions. Judgement emerges as a property of a leader’s information processing style, decision-making approach, decision-making style, personal reaction and openness to feedback and coaching.
R. Hogan, Leadership assessment author
and psychologist

While it is easy to be wise in hindsight, much can be done to increase the capability for good judgement. I explored this topic in a recent Leadership Diet podcast (link), with Meahan Callaghan, one of the most experienced tech sector CHROs in the Asia Pacific region.

Meahan believes that as executives progress in their careers, the development need is less about general skills and more about judgment especially where there are decisions to be made under pressure and where there are competing interests. Specifically in relation to employees she advocates that faster quality decisions are made by leaders on their own, the more credit that will gained from followers.

So how can people learn good judgment and have good cognitive ability in this space?

What gets in the way of leaders exercising good judgement?

Before we jump into what can leaders do to develop the capability of good judgement, it is useful to cover off some common pitfalls that leaders fall into, leading to poor decision making or excising poor judgement.

  1. A lack of formal learning in the science of decision making
    Given that judgement is a property that emerges from a combination of inputs, particularly making good decisions, the obvious place to start is how are leaders taught to make decisions. Jay McNaught, Director of Global Leadership Development in a global retailing organisation, completed his PhD in how leaders are taught to make decisions and found that most senior leaders had no formal training in this area. In recent interview, Jay commented that leaders need to learn the basics of speed versus incubation, the importance of optionality, intuition versus rationality and the dangers of personal biases.

  2. Relying too much on personal history and expertise
    Leaders are regularly promoted after having done a good job elsewhere or at a different level within the organisation. The relatively famous book by Marshall Goldsmith, ‘What got you here won’t get you there’, suggests that relying on past successes is a poor predictor of future success for a leader who is taking on more senior or complex responsibility. Neuroscience backs this up. Our brain is a superb pattern recognition expert and seeks to look for patterns in new situations that are like previously experienced events. Thus, if a leader is dealing with a situation that appears to be familiar to them, our brains can cause leaders to believe they understand the situation and therefore to act accordingly. Often with negative consequences.

  3. Letting the emotional tagging override rationality
    Building on the previous link to neuroscience, research from Ashridge Strategic Management Centre on executive level decision making suggests emotional information is attached to the thoughts and experiences stored in our memories. This is why when retelling personal narratives or stories that are associated with important events in our lives, we strongly feel the story as we retell it. From a leader’s perspective this tagging can be useful in helping to direct them towards specific actions. But, on occasions the same emotional tags can be unhelpful if they are linked to reactive emotions such as having felt cheated, embarrassed, ashamed, let down etc. The decision that is waiting to be made is now potentially influenced by an unhelpful tagged emotion.

  4. A lack of checks and balances with unconscious biases
    Rational thinking processes often have built in checks and balances. Decide on the core question to be answered, project a desired direction, lay out a specific or agreed criteria and check options against those same criteria, measure compromises as they emerge and land at an optimal decision. Very rational and full of ‘gates’ that allow for rationality to reign supreme.

    But building on the ideas of pattern recognition and emotional tagging we make decisions fast and are often blind to our personal biases along the way. According to Sydney Finkelstein, Professor of Management at Tuck School of Business, ‘our brains leap to conclusions and we are reluctant to consider alternatives, we are particularly bad at revisiting our initial assessment of a situation”.

The starting question always is, “What does good judgment look like here?”
Meahan Callaghan

5 Key steps or principles to help develop good leadership judgement

  1. Define what is good judgement here?
    You can’t train good judgement, you can only train good judgement here. Judgement is situational so the question Meahan recommends starting with is “What does good judgment look like here?” Understanding the context is critical so that decisions can be made in light of the circumstances. For instance, you may use values and behaviours of the organisation to determine what good judgment is in a context. It provides the ability to specify “good judgement here is this” and “poor judgment here is that”.

  2. Determine the key principles that guide the context here.
    Meahan in our conversation, discussed her experience as CHRO in SEEK. She told the story of one SEEK principle was “put the organisation first above your own individual needs”. Understanding that ambiguity breeds confusion, Meahan recommends organisations drawing on their values, behaviours, and culture to set the guide rails for decision making. Organisations can offer clarity regarding their internal values or important principles by extending the headline with “This means XXXXX and This does not mean XXXXX”

  3. Give lots of examples to illustrate what the favored principles mean. It is generally recognised that giving strong direction is more helpful than trying to create a rule book to try to cover every possibility. The latter is impossible and can lead to people abdicating the responsibility for using judgement. Organisational specific principles can be taught internally by using case methods (a learning approach designed to accelerate experience through exposure to a diverse range of perspectives by using real business cases) or through leadership simulations which are designed to immerse participants in common business situations commonly faced by senior leaders.

  4. Develop Self Awareness and Self-Regulation
    Poor judgement often occurs in reflex to avoid what the executive perceives to be a potentially catastrophic possibility (realistic or not, rational, or not). Avoiding this requires self-awareness. By understanding what is happening and increasing the ability to self-regulate, they then have the capacity to pause rather than react and this brings space. This space provides an opportunity to evaluate before action. This is critical. Meahan says that being able to respond rather than react is vital. She shared her experience of developing a process of personal reflection, be it through journaling or coaching allowed her to explore the narratives she, as the executive held, examine the potentials and realities and scenario plan to give her a flexibility of options.

  5. Own and learn from mistakes
    Lastly, if good judgement includes learning from mistakes, then covering up, making excuses or blame shifting is not acceptable. Accept that we will all make mistakes and exercise poor judgment and decision making. What is important is to own it, reflect for learning and share so this can increase capability for self and others.

    Being able to say to a team “I made a poor judgement call there and these were the things that I was using as guide” is a very useful learning moment for everyone and should not be shied away from – that is good judgement.

“One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty councils.
The thing is to supply light and not heat.” 
Woodrow Wilson

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Pod featured on Pod Buffet

Akimbo, the infamous online education school set up by Seth Godin, teaches many courses, including one on podcasting. Every year hundreds of aspiring podcasters from around the globe partake in a variety of ideas designed to offer the best podcasts for their ideal listeners. One of the outputs of the program is, of course, a podcast, called…The Pod Buffet!
Guests are chosen from the graduates of the program and are by invite only. The Pod Buffet is an eclectic mix of new podcasts from fresh new podcasters around the world.

Our own Pod was invited to partake in October 2021 (Yes we appreciate all the various puns here…!)
Listen to the 8-minute interview below

How to optimize leadership teams for success in a post pandemic world with Dr. Ruth Wageman

Dr Ruth Wageman is a global expert in researching and supporting teams in stacking the deck to optimize their ability to be effective.
We talk about;
  • The Essentials and Enablers of team effectiveness,
  • Structuring different types of leadership teams,
  • Why a CEO can have multiples teams within their team,
  • The 60:30:10 rule,
  • Why the leader has to model the norms in order for the team to follow suit,
  • How to pause the team for a 5-minute reflection,
  • The difference between networked teams and a team of teams,
and a whole lot more!

Size matters!

Design is the key to leadership team effectiveness, speed and agility.

What I learned from talking with Ruth Wageman.

“Can you come and chat? I’ve got some great people on my team, but it feels like I am alone in pushing a boulder up a hill. They don’t seem as committed as me or are only focused on their function – not the whole business. And this is the most senior leadership team! Can you help to sort us out”?

This was the content of a recent call with the Managing Director of a subsidiary of a large global organisation. She is charged with overseeing $3bn of revenue in the 5th largest market in the world for their global organisation. This is not small fry.

Yet her frustration is not unique. In fact, it is quite common for leadership team leaders and indeed members to be frustrated at how their team works together (or as may be the case, does not)

Where does frustration within leadership teams emerge from?

One helpful assumption to hold when thinking about leadership teams and leaders within those teams is that most leaders want to do a good job. Yet when we dig into what lies behind the classic call from a Managing Director as outlined earlier, many leaders are confused as to what is really being asked of them in their individual roles and functional responsibilities when coupled with their role as a leadership team member.

The functional leadership roles (Director of Marketing, or Director of Supply Chain etc.) are typically challenging roles with all kinds of performance metrics attached. Feedback from many leaders is that what happens in the leadership team meeting is not leadership work. Mostly what they’re doing when the collective leadership team comes together is reporting and exchanging information about what’s going on in the different parts of the business.

I was discussed this in a recent Leadership Diet podcast episode with Ruth Wageman. Ruth is a renowned expert in all things team, team formation and setting up leadership teams for success. She has been a Professor at Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard universities in the USA. She co-wrote the widely acclaimed book, “Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make them Great” and is the co-creator of the “6 Conditions” team assessment.

Ruth noted when leadership team meetings become a mere information exchange, “the leaders are distracted and thinking about the problems that they could be solving back in their day (functional leadership) jobs. The invitation to be enterprise level leaders has never been clearly called out, which leads to an assumption that as a leader I’m here because I’m supposed to fight for my part of the enterprise”.

Ultimately the time spent in meetings for many leadership team members become boring at best and completely ineffective at worst. If that is the case how does a leader think about structuring the leadership team, so it becomes effective and leadership team meetings become a valuable use of time?

In the episode we discussed what she calls 3 essentials that are part of the fundamental building blocks for launching teams towards effectiveness. 

The 3 essentials are:

  • Be a Real Team – needs to be bounded, stable and interdependent to differentiate it from being a group or cohort.
  • Compelling Team Purpose – needs to develop and have a collective purpose that is clear, compelling and consequential. In simple terms, a clear reason for being.
  • Right People – be comprised of the optimal people, of those available, with the right mix of capabilities and diverse thinking to deliver on the team purpose.

What is the real leadership team?

According to Ruth, the first mistake leader of leadership teams make is not thinking through the make-up of the team itself. Her experience and international research suggest that many leadership teams are made up of all the direct reports of the most senior leader, be it the Managing Director or CEO. Hence many teams end up with large numbers of 12-18 members. This is not a leadership team! This is merely a reflection of the organisational structure.

First and foremost, if a leader is intent on leading a collaborative, enterprise wide thinking and effective leadership team, they need to start with building a real team with clarity on who is and who isn’t a member. This is what Ruth refers to as a bounded team.

A real team is:

  • Clear who is officially a member of the team and who is not,
  • A stable entity i.e., members are in roles for extended periods,
  • Together long enough to accomplish something significant,
  • Interdependent – members need to interact with each other, exchange,
  • information and resources to accomplish something larger than what can be done individually, and
  • Here because only together can the goals be accomplished.

Compelling Team Purpose - What are we here to do?

The second problem is that many leadership teams have not paused to clarify the team’s actual purpose.

Ruth suggests the core questions the team leader needs to be able to answer with their team, include:

  1. What must we do together that has to be done together?
  2. What is our unique added value as a team?
  3. What is it that we must do together that only we can do that will bring about the success of the enterprise?

She adds, “a really compelling purpose is clear about what our contribution is. It’s challenging. So, it’s going to be a real stretch of our capabilities, just like our individual leadership roles. There is a consequence for us doing or not doing this”.

My experience in facilitating many such conversations is that when done well, functionally orientated leaders realise there is a significant contribution they are being asked to and can make as leadership team members. It’s a very powerful intervention. Once there is real leadership work on the table, it calls upon all of them to remove their functional leadership hat and come to conversation as an enterprise leader. But for many leadership teams, the invitation has never been clearly given.

I often get misquoted as saying that trust and relationships aren’t important. But I do think trust and relationships matter. I just think that they’re an outcome of good team design. Building trust is not the point of intervention.
Dr. Ruth Wageman

So, who needs to be on the leadership team, then?

When a CEO or Managing Director has an organisational chart with 12-18 direct reports either because of historical reasons, matrix structures or indeed, the motivation to review the leadership team structure has never been loud enough, leaders struggle to articulate a compelling purpose for a team that large. Large teams (of up to 18 members) find it difficult to work interdependently on core business needs.

Ruth suggests better questions to ask of such a team, are:

  1. What is the critical leadership work that would benefit from the creative fusion of different thoughts and perspectives?
  2. What is the critical leadership work that needs us to be operating in alignment?
  3. What’s the critical work that needs a team and who are the people that can contribute to that?
  4. Who are the people with the mix of capabilities, the diversity of perspectives and teamwork skills that would enable them to fulfill that purpose?

With these questions what emerges is a realization that one size does not fit all and having more than one leadership team addresses many core complaints. An example is demonstrated below.

Leadership team
Core focus
Wider Alignment leadership team, often called the Management Team
Has all members, which may be a large number. Convene for the purpose of companywide alignment on key strategies including organisation culture, information sharing, corporate messaging and/or broad consultation.
Information is shared at Functional level and at other leadership team levels
Operational leadership team(s)
Members are those with direct oversight of key commercial or operational parts of the organisation. There may be a manufacturing or commercial orientated leadership team(s), as example. Convene to steward BAU leadership, oversee key pre agreed metrics and raise red flags as appropriate.
Feeds urgent issues into the Strategic or Executive Leadership team and updates the Wider Alignment team in BAU updates
Strategic or ‘Core/ Executive’ leadership team
Usually led by the CEO/ Managing Director, is a small team made up of the roles with key strategic impact, including CFO and commercial leaders. Convene for oversight of multiple business horizons, rapidly address urgent issues and redeploy resources as needed.
Usually led by the CEO/ Managing Director, is a small team made up of the roles with key strategic impact, including CFO and commercial leaders. Convene for oversight of multiple business horizons, rapidly address urgent issues and redeploy resources as needed.

Each team needs to address the 3 essentials as outlined earlier i.e., the structure to make it a real team, purpose of the team, membership. When this is done well, Ruth says each team will have a clear purpose statement and direction, purposefully designed meetings agendas and clarity on the interdependency between that team and the other subsets of the leadership team.

Where do mindsets come into all of this?

My experience in sharing ideas like this with many leadership teams over the years is the notion of leadership team subsets makes logical sense to everyone. However, the realization that my role does not need me to be in the core or Executive leadership team, is often confronting for many leaders. This takes a mindset shift. Indeed, restricting a large leadership team into a series of smaller teams, takes a few different mindsets.

The first mindset set shift is for the CEO or Managing Director. According to Ruth, for the most senior leader to say, “Oh wait a minute, all my direct reports are not my team. In fact, I might have more than one team and I really need to ask some key strategic questions!” can be very freeing as a mindset shift. This mindset shift gives them permission to think about different configurations of people for different purposes.

A useful approach for the leader is to share with the team that they want to get more efficient in how the team works together, in how they share information and, most importantly, do real work together. In doing so the leader intends to launch several smaller teams to address specific areas.

“Everybody wants to be on the leadership team, but no one wants to go to all the meetings, because so much information that’s being shared is not relevant to anybody who, you know, to 50%, at least of the people sitting around the table at any given moment!”
Dr Ruth Wageman

The second mindset shift is for new members of leadership teams, particularly if this is their first time on a leadership team. Their expectation is they will be involved in all decisions at the leadership team level. They quickly realise this is not the case and often are relieved when this is shown to be untrue. The allure of going to many leadership team meetings, many of them deemed to be a waste of time, diminishes fast.

At a point when the team has got some success under its belt, it’s much easier to authorize subsets of the team members when they’ve come to recognize why those talented and smart people are best suited to tackle a specific area of leadership team responsibility and report back.

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