Missing: Women CEOs' Career Development. Here's How to Fix it.

The pool of women executives is small not because of a lack of women's ambition, but because we are missing opportunities to develop and inspire women executives earlier in their career.
Missing: Women CEOs' Career Development. Here's How to Fix it.
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Guest Writer
CEO of Barbarian
5 min read
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In David Gelles's New York Times article "Missing: Women CEOs," he makes a great point that boards of directors need to take a more active role in seeking diverse and entrepreneurially driven candidates. I couldn't agree more. But to do that, there needs to be an expansive set of talent from which to choose. According to an analysis in Harvard Business Review, only 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies were run by female CEOs in 2017. The pool of women executives is small not because of a lack of women's ambition, but because we are missing opportunities to develop and inspire women executives earlier in their career.

Related: Why Leadership Is at the Crux of Closing the Gender Pay Gap

Both men and women can do more to support women's career development -- from paving the way to the right experiences to professional brand-building to strategies on juggling work/life choices. According to a LinkedIn survey of 7,000 women from seven countries, 49 percent of respondents said it is more difficult for them to reach senior management positions than it is for men in their organization. Female CEOs start their professional trajectory when they first step into a professional setting, not when a recruiter calls with an opportunity. As they develop their career over time, they must use their entrepreneurial drive and expertise to prove themselves throughout their professional journey.

Here are some things to consider as talent teams are planning how to develop the next generation of female CEOs and empower women to tap into their entrepreneurial spirit, thus enabling success:

Experience seeking

It goes without saying that women executives need the right experience to be considered for a CEO role. And it doesn't come from just one singular career trajectory. If we look at successful CEOs -- Indra Nooyi, Meg Whitman, Beth Ford -- each have had extensive experience from a variety of different roles in business, from strategy to supply chain. It is this diverse experience that helps them build CEO muscle -- the ability to understand the business from many angles and to make decisions from a variety of perspectives.

For our young talent, it's important to shape that executive mindset early on. Let's guide that thinking by discussing the experiences you need to succeed as an executive. Business acumen. Leadership and management. Operations. Sales. With those experience goals defined early in their career, women can opportunistically seek them out from each company or role over time.

Related: Why Working Women Need to Mentor Other Women

Brand building

Professional modesty will only get you so far. As natural nurturers and team builders, women tend to share the credit rather than take the credit when it's due, and market their own success. We need to help women develop an authentic-to-them way to speak about their goals, their achievements and at each stage in their career, work with them to develop a personal PR plan. What are the key messages to which executive? Who are their spheres of influence? Then, build their visibility by getting them in front of the right executives in both formal and informal settings.

Succession planning

As executives, thinking ahead to who might replace you may be uncomfortable, but it's necessary. Succession planning ensures that we are training our next generation of women leaders to have the skills to be candidates under consideration in top jobs. Identify three to five women who are starting to demonstrate the skills to succeed you and develop plans that give them opportunities to learn what you do every day, and how you navigate decisions; give them exposure to meetings that they wouldn't normally be part of. Be committed to teaching them everything you know so that the future of your company is stable, but that they also will have the skills to lead elsewhere too.

Related: Women Job Seekers Should Target Small Employers That Can Better Offer Work Flexibility

Executive coaching

According to a Fortune survey of 57 female CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies, 37 said they hadn't considered becoming a CEO until someone else told them they had that potential. And just five said they'd always wanted to be a CEO. Empowering and inspiring future leaders and your counterparts can make all the difference when curating one's business model, but having an outside perspective in discovering your own potential can propel your career growth further than you ever thought it could go.

There are many types of training that women can do to prepare for executive positions. One aspect that is under explored is executive coaching. It is 1:1 development, and bespoke to the ambitions of the talent. Coaching can range from brainstorming solutions to complex corporate politics, to defining work/life priorities to preparing for board meetings. The executive coach brings an outside perspective but is focused on how the CEO-in-training can achieve her career goals.

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