BY RHEA SEYMOUR
How will the gender balance in the boardroom be shifted? Innovative companies are investing in promising female employees with the goal of shaping future leaders. At Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and Novartis Pharma AG, women are hand-selected for high potential programs that not only provide leadership skills training, but also pair participants with senior executive sponsors and career advocates. It’s a winning formula that’s leading to more promotions for women into senior roles and better retention of top female talent.
RBC introduced their Women in Leadership program in 2013 to increase the representation of women and visible minorities at executive levels. After a rigorous nomination and selection process, 25 women from across the global enterprise are selected annually for the 10-month program, which incorporates three formal in-person learning sessions. These cover everything from presenting case studies to an executive panel to coaching sessions with executives. There’s an advisory circle, where participants meet monthly to discuss topics as a group, bring forward different perspectives, and build a peer network within the company. Developing each woman’s personal leadership style is also a key component. “We have sessions on strategic influencing and collaboration, how to interact with different personalities, and share accountability,” says Pragashini Fox, Vice-President of Talent Management at RBC.
“It’s not based on talent or skill; it’s about whether you can influence internally and externally, whether you can negotiate, communicate, and have an executive leadership style.”
These leadership skills are critical for preparing women for top roles, says Carolyn Lawrence, President and CEO of Women of Influence. “From our research, executive leadership skills are the biggest differentiator for women who make it to the executive ranks and women who don’t. It’s not based on talent or skill; it’s about whether you can influence internally and externally, whether you can negotiate, communicate, and have an executive leadership style.”
Related: Straddling the Gender Pay Gap
In the high-potential Executive Female Leadership program at Novartis Pharma AG, created in partnership with Duke Corporation Education, self-reflection is an important aspect of leadership skill development. “Like all global corporations, we are in a very complex and rapidly changing industry,” says Eric Pardell, Global Head of Leadership Development at Novartis. “Novartis is unique in that there’s a belief in our leadership that in all of the chaos, one of the things that can serve a leader best is if they really know who they are, they’ve done a lot of reflection, and they know why they come to work. They can be better leaders if they really understand themselves and when our participants get this type of grooming, they know where they are vulnerable and where their strengths can be used.”
“It gives these women increased exposure to leaders and executives, including those in other parts of the business that they wouldn’t otherwise meet and in areas of interest they want to explore.”
Novartis uses some unorthodox components in its program to encourage such self-reflection, including inviting program participants to play basketball at the company program headquarters in Basel, Switzerland with an Olympic athlete, professional basketball player, and several very tall Novartis male executives. “The women in the program are from around the world and some of them have never even held a basketball,” says Pardell. “We teach them the fundamentals and they learn to work together as a team. During this exercise they go through the process of playing a game that might be designed for someone with different strengths. It’s a helpful metaphor for the workplace where they’re entering situations that weren’t designed for them and it helps them learn how to navigate that environment.”
Giving women with high potential more visibility is another key objective of the Novartis program, now in its third year. Participants (there have been 88 to date) complete three development-oriented in-person modules, including strategic discussions about the company’s future with the CEO, and working shoulder-to-shoulder on innovation projects with senior executives.
“Each participant also has a sponsor or career advocate chosen from the top 50 leaders in our company,” says Pardell. “Participants meet with their sponsor every six weeks to talk about career aspirations and get the coaching they need to move into those senior levels. Then when our executives meet to discuss hiring for a senior position, participants already have a close relationship with someone at the table.”
Participants in the RBC program gain the same advantage of visibility through coordinated meetings with executives across the organization. “It gives these women increased exposure to leaders and executives, including those in other parts of the business that they wouldn’t otherwise meet and in areas of interest they want to explore,” says Fox. “When job opportunities show up, they are top of mind and executives are aware of these high-potential talents.”
Both programs appear to be paying off. At RBC, five participants have been promoted to executive roles and five have made lateral moves. “The feedback from managers was that the visibility, networking, and honing of skills just gave them an edge,” says Fox. At Novartis, 25 per cent of the women who have gone through the program have been promoted to the top-500 executive level at the company, and more than 90 per cent have moved into a new role of some kind. “We’ve retained 90 per cent of the people who have gone through the program, which is very strong retention,” says Pardell. The ability to attract and keep top talent also gives RBC a competitive edge. “We’re all recruiting from the same talent pool and this helps us engage and retain the top employees,” says Fox.
“High potential programs are really good, but no matter how many women you fill the pipeline with or inspire or educate, if the culture is not right when they get through the ceiling, they’re going to have problems at the top, they’re going to opt out, and they’re not going to be set up for success.”
While RBC and Novartis have achieved success with these leadership programs, high potential programs don’t necessarily guarantee results: In a 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt found that 40 per cent of internal moves made by high potentials failed. And a survey by the Corporate Executive Board found that 12 per cent of high potentials were actively looking for a new job. Those numbers don’t surprise Lawrence. “High potential programs are really good, but no matter how many women you fill the pipeline with or inspire or educate, if the culture is not right when they get through the ceiling, they’re going to have problems at the top, they’re going to opt out, and they’re not going to be set up for success.”
Fox agrees that the culture is key for high-potential programs to work for women. “The tone is set at the top from the CEO,” she says. “The leadership has to be in place to enable these women to be successful.”