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Karina's Column

An insider’s view on the City of London and beyond

Six Steps to Retaining Your Promising Female Executives

686 Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf advises

The City of London retains its ranking among the top two global world centres, but Asian centres are snapping at its heels. The City is only as good as the talented workforce that joins, grows and leads it. The fact that too many promising female executives drop out is a problem that must be addressed as part of the ongoing work to boost its international appeal.

Dame Fiona Woolf, 686th Lord Mayor, instituted the Power of Diversity programme in her 2013/14 term, a strategy followed by subsequent Lord Mayors. Here are her six practical steps to retaining women and supporting their rise.

  1. Think of it as Talent Development

I ran a survey a while ago that delivered the unsurprising answer that the quality of supervision and personal development were the top factors that would keep people in a job. Next came the quality of work – everyone wants access to the top jobs. In people businesses (and most businesses claim that they are), success depends on recruiting, training and deploying the best talent so that it gets better all the time. When I ask how many of us have been trained in on-the-job talent development, very few hands go up. We should teach managers how to develop skills and create an environment where everyone learns from on-the-job experience. Regular “what went well, what went less well” conversations would be good. I am a fan of sharing individual development plans. Transparency about the way work is allocated will help to deal with unconscious bias, such as the assumption that a woman with a family will not want to get involved in a big deal, without asking her.

  1. Identify and Motivate the Keepers of the Talent Pipeline

Many of the keepers of the executive talent pipeline are managers at mid-level who are busy doing the work, generating the income, looking for new business and trying to go home at night. They may not realise that they are responsible for talent development and that they will really benefit from it. There is a saying that you are only as strong as your weakest link. So it follows that these keepers of the talent pipeline need to be motivated to value and invest time in talent developmentThey need to be a part of a workplace culture that regards it as mainstream in the day job and do a little of it every day. The senior leadership can do a lot of messaging but also lead by example and be seen to monitor and celebrate promotions and vibrant teams. Understanding the costs to the business of losing and replacing someone is key. More positively, remember that the attractiveness of someone who is developing well to a client is a terrific marketing tool (and if they go and work for the client they will return as a client)!

  1. What Gets Measured Gets Done

I have not come across many organisations that actually measure individual performance in talent development and reward it, but there are some. Diversity and inclusion is often a soft, but important value rather than a performance indicator. Income generation and new business acquisition as performance indicators are easier to measure and reward. We are now working with Business Schools and firms to find ways to monitor and reward talent management and development looking at the outcomes. An obvious example is to measure the number of people who leave a manager each year and to understand the reason through exit interviews. Another is the number of promotions and lateral transfers.

  1. Senior Leadership Commitment to a Concerted Culture Change

In a survey that was part of what is now the continuing Power of Diversity programme, we discovered that 84% felt that their senior leadership were doing the right thing to create diversity and inclusion but only 27% felt under any pressure to do anything about it at their level. There are clearly many good initiatives like affinity networks, unconscious bias training, mentoring and sponsorship schemes but none of them will work unless they are embedded in a big change programme involving everyone. Think of it more like a campaign, led from the top but full of excitement in the big middle that then becomes the new normal!

  1. Develop Support for all Rising Talent

My motto is “Get lucky and say “yes”!” because everyone these days wants women to succeed and we will be supported. We all need support when we take on something new (however senior we are) and we can be smarter at asking for it and giving it. It is not a sign of weakness. So often, we adopt the “sink or swim” approach, “dumping“ rather than helping, in the hope that people will figure it out for themselves. The same applies to returners after a career break. We should be seeing a growing market in “returner courses”. Mentoring meetings on a regular basis are good, but what about asking for someone to go to who can give you the background or a quick second opinion on what to do next?

  1. Recruit and Promote on the Basis of Intellectual Capacity and Transferable Skills, not just Experience

Is it a stereotype that, unlike men, women are reluctant to apply for jobs and promotion unless they tick all the boxes? Some people do recruit and promote square pegs to square holes based on all the “previous experience” boxes. I have always hired on the basis of intellectual capacity, motivation and transferable skills. I was seldom able to find people with directly relevant experience and turn them into international electricity lawyers, so an excited engineer working in South Africa who spoke Russian was a good answer! I was not taking much risk in hiring or promoting bright people with transferable skills, nor did I have to invest excessive time in supporting them. They learned very quickly, brought new ideas and make a great contribution. Women can do this too and we should not worry about moving from a square hole to a round one!