How to develop leaders for the C-suite

What steps can you take to create a diverse and effective succession plan?

How to develop leaders for the C-suite

In a Women’s Day feature last month, we explored why women are underrepresented in the C-suite and found shocking figures about the utter lack of diversity at most executive tables. While women continued to make gains among CHROs and chief legal officers, the top paying jobs like the CEO and CFO were almost always held by men. To be exact, we found that a whopping 93% of CEOs are men.

The disappointing disparity is often attributed to one thing: the CEO position is given to leaders who’ve had experience managing portfolios that deal directly with profit-and-loss or P&L. Unfortunately, women leaders have the smallest presence in P&L roles such as investment, sales and heads of divisions, according to Equilar.

If you’re keen on holding the top job, it is critical to be well-versed in managing the business side of things, but this inherent ‘bias’ in the C-suite succession system of only picking individuals from P&L positions has left many potential leaders at an unfortunate disadvantage.

“There’s this perception that only if you have a P&L capability, can you be a CEO,” said Sowjanya Reddy, head of HR at HP Greater Asia. “If you look at the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, they really come from that background of sales largely, and management or GM roles in business units. So both men and women who head up other functions and have immense experience – very relevant experience – get left out.”

Read more: Can CHROs become CEOs?

Do you have an ‘intentional’ succession plan?

This lack of progress is such a shame considering how much the world has changed and how D&I trends have shifted so dramatically. Reddy believes it all boils down to a failure in investing or putting together a “very intentional” succession planning process. If leaders were keen on developing a genuinely diverse and strong team at the top of the organisation, she suggested giving promising talent the support they needed to pave their way to the C-suite, regardless of their gender.

“The reason we call them – for example a good customer support, HR or marketing leader – key or top talent is because we believe they have the potential and can be ‘plugged and played’ anywhere in the organisation,” she told HRD.

“If we can provide them a safe environment, and a rotational role with a ‘two-in-a-box’ approach, where they have someone doing the same role, but with strong P&L skills that can help them grow this capability, I think that’s one way of doing it. But I think it’s just that we don’t ‘pay attention’ and we’re not intentional about it.”

Read more: How to build a succession plan

How to develop strong leaders

Even if you have a deliberate approach to leadership diversity, the experienced HRD acknowledged that there are plenty of challenges to managing your organisation’s progress on D&I. The most common one being “the belief that it’s a number”. Falling into the trap of chasing after numbers isn’t just exhausting, it can also be counterproductive when it becomes tokenistic. One way to overcome this is to focus on the talent.

“Numbers – that’s one thing we’ve stayed away from,” she said. “We say that our only criteria is talent. We hire the right talent. And when we bring them in, we make sure we surround them and them feel support, whether it is through programs where we’re engaging with our women leaders or helping them build capabilities like financial and business acumen – their P&L capabilities. We also ensure that we develop them to run markets and geographies.”

Read more: Mentors vs sponsors – why employees need both

She also shared other feasible and helpful initiatives like:

  • Mentorship and sponsorship

It’s best to offer potential leaders a mentor who can guide them to map their career pathways, as well as serve as a sponsor to help sniff out promising opportunities at the organisation. It’s about connecting individuals with senior leaders who “understand their aspirations and development areas”, while offering the right coaching and connections to “open doors for them” and “get them ready for next level roles”.

  • Shadow learning

This initiative can further support the company’s mentorship programs, as it allows individuals the chance to get a first-hand experience of what it’s actually like to take on a top leadership role. Individuals can pick a role that they aspire to and shadow the current executive so that they can start getting ready for the role. They’ll be able to understand more about the functional and leadership capabilities required as well as practical experiences like what it feels like to ‘live in the shoes of that leader’ and how decisions are made daily.

Read more: From survive to thrive: How CHROs can expand their capabilities

Beyond offering the necessary support system and programs or policies to push potential leaders to the top, the aim should be about enabling bold and confident individuals who will actually ask for those executive roles.

“In a lot of ways we tend to think: this is my area of expertise and I’m doing well, and the next role will come, right?” Reddy said. “To manage your career in a very intentional way, I think it requires a bit of both – companies and HR can help facilitate, but really, the female leaders need to take control and be in charge of their careers and navigate the ecosystem that companies provide to advance their careers.”

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