Corporate values. Leader behaviors. Diversity and inclusion training. Hiring goals. High-potential training programs. Affinity groups. Mentoring. While these are all important practices for developing leaders and increasing gender diversity, they are not a substitute for one of the most important, but frequently overlooked, contributors to leader development and leadership diversity—ensuring that women in the pipeline are assigned to the high-impact, highly visible, challenging roles and project assignments that will prepare them for executive management.
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) points to experience as a critical factor in executive development. In the introductory chapter to Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent, the book’s editors, Cynthia McCauley and Morgan McCall, define “experience-driven development” as “identifying people with potential, giving them challenging assignments, and holding them accountable for both results and growth.”
CCL has devoted an online publication exclusively to the subject titled Experience Driven Development. The organization states that despite being the most important element of the learning process, experience-driven development often gets scant attention in the workplace: “Individuals broaden and deepen their leadership capabilities as they do leadership work. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that learning from experience is the number one way that leader development happens. Yet this number one driver of learning gets the least attention in our leader development systems.”
Experience-driven development reflects the familiar CCL 70-20-10 framework for leader development stemming from the original Lessons of Experience research of the late 1980s. This model states that roughly 70 percent of development can be attributed to challenging on-the-job experiences; 20 percent to mentoring and other developmental relationships; and 10 percent to formal coursework.
The challenging job experiences can include such assignments as:
- Starting something from scratch.
- Turning around a failing or struggling business unit or initiative.
- Special high-visibility projects.
- Roles reflecting increases in scope and scale.
- International assignments.
Ann Morrison, co-author of The Lessons of Experience and author of The New Leaders: Guidelines on Leadership Diversity in America, states that “such assignments involve autonomy, visibility, access to senior management, and control over considerable resources.”
She continues, “They are often used as tests and rewards for the people judged to have high potential; they constitute the ‘fast track’ in many organizations.”
Morrison stresses that to be effective, these developmental challenges need to be balanced by recognition (including pay, promotion, autonomy, resources, and respect) and support. She notes that organizations need to be aware of additional sources of challenges experienced by diverse leaders (for example, unconscious bias, higher performance standards, and family issues).
The sample in the original Lessons of Experience research, upon which the 7020-10 model is based, was made up almost exclusively of white males. Followup CCL research concluded that men had access to a greater variety of challenging job experiences than women.
THE CATALYST RESEARCH ON HIGH-POTENTIAL EMPLOYEES
Recently the Catalyst Organization has undertaken a global longitudinal study of 1,700 post-MBA high-potential employees in companies such as General Motors, IBM, Ernst & Young, McDonalds and UPS. In the research summary entitled “Good Intentions, Imperfect Executions? Women Get Fewer of the ‘Hot Jobs’ Needed to Advance,” authors Christine Silva, Nancy Carter and Anna Beninger refer to the critical job assignments for development and advancement as “hot jobs.” They conclude: “Highly visible projects, mission-critical roles, and international experiences are hallmarks of ‘hot jobs.’ They predict advancement, yet our findings show that women get fewer of these hot jobs than men.”
The authors point out that most global companies have embraced the cause of gender diversity and virtually all of them have established formal leadership development courses. “Despite these efforts, women remain under-represented at senior levels, indicating that these programs may not be paying off equally for women and men,” they note. “And past Catalyst research shows there is typically little accountability in place to ensure women’s equal access to development opportunities.”
The Catalyst study explored three of the most potent sources of experience-driven development: project leadership, challenging roles and international assignments. The results show that women lag behind men with similar education and organizational tenure in terms of their access to fasttrack development opportunities. The study found the projects that men worked on typically had budgets twice the size of the women’s projects, and the men’s projects had three times as many employees assigned to them.
SHARED ACCOUNTABILITY FOR DEVELOPING LEADERSHIP DIVERSITY
So, if high-potential, post-MBA women are getting fewer of the high-visibility and high-impact roles that are essential for their development and for increasing gender diversity in the executive ranks, who is accountable for changing the status quo?
According to experts at CCL, experience-driven development should be viewed as a shared responsibility involving the CEO and senior leaders, human resource executives, the immediate manager, and the individual employee. In their conclusion to Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent, editors Cynthia McCauley and Morgan McCall comment on the critical role of the CEO: “The potential contribution of the CEO cannot be overstated. We’ve seen how important the chief executive is in making leader development a fundamental part of the business strategy, in modeling expected behavior in developing others, and in holding managers accountable for the development of their people.”
McCauley and McCall point out that senior leaders have development accountabilities similar to those of the CEO and must also “make sure that the boundaries among their parts of the business can be crossed for developmental as well as business reasons.” The authors point to immediate managers as an important focus, as they are the gatekeepers to challenging work assignments and often play a role in identifying high-potential talent.
Finally, they comment on the individual’s role in their own career development: “Ultimately, individuals are responsible for those aspects of development they can influence, most immediately taking developmental opportunities when they arise and proactively seeking them when they don’t, being open to learning from these opportunities, and taking actions (such as seeking out feedback and building in accountability) that increase the likelihood of learning.”
KEY QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
Experience-driven development. Hot jobs. Fast track. To increase leadership diversity, it is critical that the résumés of women reflect a variety of challenging, visible, high-risk, high-impact roles in preparation for top management positions.
The research project by the Catalyst Organization echoes early research at the Center for Creative Leadership and concludes that post-MBA, high-potential men are more likely than their female counterparts to be assigned to larger, more visible projects. The men are more likely than high-potential women to have profit and loss responsibility, as well as supervisory responsibility. Significantly more men than women are selected for international assignments.
The questions below may stimulate your thinking about leadership diversity and professional development in your organization:
- Are you placing women in high-visibility, high-impact positions?
- What role does “unconscious bias” play in the development of high-potential women?
- Are women required to demonstrate greater readiness for a challenging role than their male counterparts?
- Do your organization’s diversity metrics reflect experience-driven development?
- What role will you play in bringing about needed change?
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