When I left corporate life, the glass in the ceiling suppressing the advancement of women to the C-suite was beginning to show cracks. That was two decades ago. Today, there’s a venerable list of female executives who have shattered that glass and gone on to illustrious careers as successful CEOs. One might think the likes of Melissa Mayer (Yahoo!), Laura Sen (BJ’s Wholesale Club), Ellen Kullman (DuPont), and Indra K. Nooyi (Pepsi) would inspire more and more women to seek greater responsibility in the corporate world. Not necessarily so.
Women are ditching upper-management positions and bailing out before breaking through the glass ceiling. This raises several questions for corporations, the most important being the impact this emerging trend will have on future performance. Fewer women aspiring to the C-suite isn’t the problem; it is the symptom of the problem. The problem is outdated, entrenched male-oriented cultures that refuse to recognize or promote the value of diversity in corporate leadership. Flourishing 21st century corporations embrace the notion that Culture Is the Strategy. These organizations are the ones enjoying unique human capital advantages that emanate from diversity at the top.
If women continue to jump ship, what fallout can corporations expect?
The issue for corporations isn’t a shortage of female leaders; it’s a shortage of leaders. The demands on C-suite executives have never been so challenging. Don’t expect to see relief any time soon. The female bail out creates a reduced talent pool for senior management positions. Gender quotas currently in debate in Europe aren’t the panacea; the “best person” mentality must prevail. But, declining bench strength guarantees that corporate boards will continue to struggle to find qualified leaders for the unique needs of their particular company or industry.
A powerful component of minorities in leadership is the effect on followers. Although women are far from a minority, severe underrepresentation in leadership roles puts them in the same camp as those marginalized because of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Twenty-five years ago, I promoted a woman to the C-suite. The decision was easy. She was the best person for the job, and happened to be the first woman vice president in the history of the century-old company. I never gave a thought to how the female workforce would react to the appointment. I was in for a shock. When she walked through the factory the day after the promotion, the machines stopped and every woman applauded. Some eyes welled. It was a “wow moment” in my career – an eye opener, to say the least.
Companies without women on the board or in the C-suite will find themselves on the customer’s radar screen. While brand reputation remains critical in purchasing decisions, more and more consumers want to know who makes the brands they buy. With public disclosure of gender diversity increasing, corporations with stellar records of employee relations, social responsibility and customer service will have a leg up on competitors known for discriminatory and/or non-family oriented practices.
Less diversity hinders creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. The relationship between corporate performance and gender diversity is undeniable. Several studies confirm superior performance by companies with gender diverse boards than male-only boards. I’m willing to bet that companies respectful of a healthy balance between work life and home life also perform better. Success in the new economy requires creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Diverse leaders empower diverse workforces. On a broader scale, this is an opportunity for America to become more competitive in the global economy.
One can live with the ethic of the best person gets the job, but at the same time, corporations must make it their mission to bring greater diversity into the C-suite and around the boardroom table. These leaders become the direct and indirect mentors of their brothers and sisters in middle management. Their followers have the potential to break through the glass ceiling and shape the organization’s future. For those corporations passionate about reaching the future ahead of their competitors, I suggest a culture without ceilings. That ought to bend the bail out trend.