How to Attract, Retain and Maximize the Contributions of Talented Women

The proof is in. Women leaders create a competitive advantage and better financial results for the companies that employ them. (For a copy of the white paper on this topic click here and complete the contact form.)  Attracting and retaining talented women is no longer a matter of political correctness but rather a strategic imperative for smart companies. This  often requires changes to a culture that worked when the professional domain was “a man’s world.”

Creating an inviting and inclusive environment means demonstrating the company values what women bring to the table. Policies and practices should also make it possible for women as well as men to enjoy the riches of their non-work life while contributing to their fullest potential at work and being recognized for their achievements.  Many company’s begin their change efforts by creating a women’s initiative to learn from and engage women inside the company.

Deloitte’s Women’s Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women (WIN) is a leading edge program that started 16 years ago. Many new-comers to women’s initiatives turn to Deloitte for advice.  I spoke recently with Barbara Adachi the National Managing Principal for WIN.  She advises companies to:

  • Tie initiatives to business imperatives
  • Ensure commitment from senior leader
  • Involve senior women and men as sponsors
  • Identify and measure desired results
  • Deliver benefits to men and women

For those working in companies with little support for such an initiative I suggest you

  • Start small, get senior women on board, and show progress on an important business issue

Tie Initiatives to Business Imperatives

Understand the company’s strategy, goals, challenges, and opportunities.  Then identify and articulate clear links between the women’s initiative and important business imperatives so everyone sees the connection.

Deloitte initiated WIN 16 years ago to address the retention and advancement of women. From a business perspective, Deloitte recognized the changing role of women in business and the need to have more women leaders.  According to Barbara,  “We had a 7% gender turnover gap and a small representation of women at the partner, principal and director levels.”   At the same time, women represent more than 50% of the managerial professions and those receiving college degrees.  Today at Deloitte, the gender gap is less than 1% and approximately 22% of the partner, principals and directors (PPDs) are women, in fact, they just reached a notable milestone of surpassing 1,000 women PPDs in the U.S. firm.

At Best Buy regional WOLF packs (Women’s Leadership Forums) develop ideas to attract more women customers to local stores.  The packs have implemented small changes that produce big results, such as carrying designer cases for PDAs and changing signs designating washing machine capacity from cubic feet to number of loads.  Like Deloitte, Best Buy measures results – increase in women customers – and by this measure the program is a success. The company now has a more robust women’s leadership initiative headed by Liz Haesler and Mary Stoddart. Best Buy has succeeded in hiring more women sales managers, attracting more women customers and lowering the turnover rate for women.

Ensure Commitment from Senior Leaders

Barry Salzberg, Deloitte’s U.S. CEO, is passionate about diversity and drives WIN as a business imperative. He recognizes that to be competitive the company needs to look like their client organizations and “Our clients expect it,” says Adachi.

Salzberg sees WIN as a driving force for accumulating the intellectual capital and diverse perspectives Deloitte needs to remain competitive in the marketplace. “We are committed to Deloitte being a diverse and inclusive workplace, to value our people for who they are as much as what they contribute. We strive to promote an environment where all our talent can have rich and rewarding careers and where our clients can expect stronger teams and more innovative services.”  A statement from the CEO about WIN appears in a report WIN published this year, available in polished, hard copy edition as well as on line.

According to Barbara without this type of commitment from the highest level of leadership you won’t get the mind-share required to make a difference.

Involve Senior Women and Men

Companies like Deloitte, Best Buy, General Electric and American Express ensure that senior women are involved and have formal roles as sponsors of the company’s women’s initiatives.   Barbara leads Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Human Capital Practice for U.S. Western Region. Leading WIN is an additional assignment for which she reports directly to the U.S. CEO as did each of her predecessors. Best Buy’s Haesler is responsible for the Home Life business and Stoddart runs operations across the southeastern U.S. with over 15,000 employees. Sponsors typically report to or are members of a company’s executive committee. This ensures the initiative and its results are at the top of the company’s agenda.

Identify and Measure Desired Results

At Deloitte what gets measured gets done. WIN program goals are clear and measurable beginning with the original objective of closing the gender based turnover gap.  Deloitte has a number of key metrics and has established an external advisory council, chaired by former U.S. astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride.

In my role as women’s leadership consultant I advise companies on the “Rule of 3,” recommending that they strive for at least three women on leadership teams particularly at senior levels.  Why three?  According to social science research on minority group influence and observation by professionals in the field, a critical mass of three allows the minority view to be expressed and heard.  Three women on top leadership teams adds a different and needed perspective to important decisions that affect the company’s bottom line.

Deliver Benefits to Men and Women

Programs that benefit only a portion of the population tend to be marginalized, so from the outset focus on delivering positive change for women and men.  At Deloitte, the benefits of WIN have accrued to the entire organization regardless of gender. The recent implementation of Mass Career Customization, which was initiated by WIN, applies to all professionals at Deloitte. The “Women as Buyers” program is one of WIN’s recent innovations.  It was created because 91% of Deloitte’s partners and senior managers are pitching to women clients and need to understand how women think and make decisions about financial matters.  One male attendee remarked, “Women as Buyers is a great program.  It provides insights into the things you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.”

If There is Little Support, Start Small

I’ve amended Barbara’s list of tips for those who don’t have the attention of top leaders -  start small and make a difference to the current or future business priorities.  Not everyone sees the business benefits of women in top leadership roles.  Get the attention of top leaders by contributing to what they consider important. Then use the visibility and the opportunities to engage top leaders in discussions about the business advantages of attracting, retaining and getting the most value from talented women.  Talk about the needed changes. They may charter your group to lead the charge, and you’re on your way.

Barbara Adachi serves on the National Board of the Girl Scouts of America and has been repeatedly named one of the “100 Most Influential Women in Business” by San Francisco Business Times (2003-2009).