Inclusive Leadership

A career information gap impacts women’s leadership advancement

For the past nine years, McKinsey & Company in partnership with LeanIn.Org have released the Women in the Workplace report. It surveys 200+ organizations and 250+ HR leaders across the United States and Canada. Women’s representation in the C-suite is at the highest it's ever been, but true parity is a long way out. Given the current rate of progress, the World Economic Forum estimates that the global gender gap will close by year 2154.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve provided strategic career management to women executives across the world. The pattern of client experiences confirms known challenges with women’s leadership advancement: there is a broken rung in middle management and microaggressions have a huge impact. However, our work highlights a further challenge: the career information gap between leaders and their organization.

Typically, organizations don’t communicate with leaders about where they fit into succession plans, let alone engage in strategic career development discussions with them. This feeds an information gap that radically impacts women’s leadership advancement. Informational asymmetry acts as a career dampener for all high-flyers. But for women, its impact is multiplied by any unconscious biases or systemic challenges they face.

What can organizations do about this? There are two opportunities: quarterly touchpoints to supplement annual appraisals, and candid career meetings between managers and direct reports. Each targets a key zone for strategic career development: one, performance and reputation management, and, two, professional equity building.

Quarterly touchpoints to supplement annual appraisals

Most organizations sit down with leaders once a year - if that - to discuss the past year and any development opportunities. When leaders are in their prime years for career acceleration, once a year is not enough, especially for high-flyers in the corporate world.  

While annual performance evaluation makes sense, this needs to be supplemented by quarterly touchpoints. Why? Leaders’ prospects are tied to a) their most recent performance evaluation, and b) perceptions of their performance. These two factors power career advancement for high-flyers.

If either factor is derailing or presents an opportunity for elevation, timely action matters a lot. This is especially true for women leaders, who tend to face more negative bias about performance than their male counterparts, and who tend to have fewer sponsors at their organization (something that disadvantages them both in succession planning and annual appraisals).

A quarterly touchpoint creates the opportunity for timely communication about any existing or potential performance and reputation issues. As such, it prevents a widening gap that, if left unaddressed, can radically undermine women leaders’ career prospects. It also creates the chance to highlight performance or reputation opportunities as they emerge through the year. Capitalizing on these can have a substantial impact on promotion chances, and, as such, on leadership advancement within an organization and beyond.

Well-managed, quarterly touchpoints involve respectful, focused, and actionable feedback from manager to their direct report. Excellently managed, they build trust and create the conditions for direct reports to provide very early heads-up about results (good and bad), to seek advice and resources as needed, and to share additional concerns, ideas, and opportunities for the quarter ahead.

Candid career meetings between managers and direct reports

It’s rare that managers know their direct reports’ full or true career ambitions. Direct reports also rarely know what career path their manager has in mind for them. For a number of reasons, this information gap is greater when the direct report is from a group that is underrepresented in positions of power at the organization. Such underrepresentation often derives from sex and gender, but it can also derive from other differentiating identities and characteristics like race and nationality, personality traits like intro/extroversion, or professional background.

Managers are often gatekeepers to building a leader’s professional equity: they directly impact the skills, experiences, and networks that their team members build. They do this through how they staff workstreams, provide stretch projects, create visibility and sponsorship opportunities, and promote direct reports behind closed doors. Where managers are aware of direct reports’ career aspirations, they are better equipped to provide the right professional and career development opportunities. Going beyond this, managerial sponsorship can involve brokering the necessary negotiations - within or beyond the organization - to help direct reports secure their next key role.

The foregoing said, managers may not be aligned with direct reports’ career goals (in some cases, reasonably so), or may not be skilled in developing high-potential leaders. However, to the extent that they are, awareness of direct reports’ career goals is a first and necessary step to enable managers to support them to build the right professional equity.

On the flip side, when a direct report understands how their manager views their career development, it provides them with key information to inform a robust personal career strategy. It helps prioritize what professional equity to showcase or build. It answers questions about hallway reputation and strength of sponsorship at the organization. It informs more accurate estimations of what it’ll take to achieve their career ambitions, and better planning to optimize career acceleration.

Candid two-way communication between leaders and managers about career trajectory delivers value on both sides. It facilitates targeted, experience-based development opportunities - critical for the growth and engagement of high-potential leaders. It supports higher trust between the leader and manager, which has positive spillover effects for the manager’s team and creates stronger loyalty to the organization. It equips leaders with the managerial feedback required to optimize their career strategy. For all high-flyers, this last point can be transformative. It is especially so for women leaders, where informational asymmetry is amplified by any unconscious biases or systemic challenges they face.

Two simple changes shift the needle - for all leaders’ benefit

The recommended changes are a win for all high-potential leaders across an organization, regardless of gender or sex. The critical factor is ensuring that all leadership talent gets the same caliber of touchpoint and career discussion, regardless of gender.

Infrequent, delayed, or unfocused communication about 1) performance and reputation, and 2) career ambitions, translates to missed opportunities for high-potential leaders to perform, grow, and advance. In career management, we call the cumulative effect of these missed opportunities “career dampening”. This is because it reduces the altitude of what a leader achieves across the lifetime of their career. This includes aggregate take-home compensation, seniority level achieved, scale and scope of mandates managed, and influence over industry and global affairs.

Women already face evidenced unconscious bias and systemic challenge in the workplace. From underestimation of their competence and ambition, to stronger negative repercussions for mistakes made, to assumptions that they cannot take on stretch assignments if they hold parental responsibilities. To add to this, as direct reports, women tend to receive less direct and less constructive feedback.

The two recommended changes can shift the needle for gender parity. Importantly also, organizations stand to gain a lot. Transparency from leaders about career goals and from organizations about potential career opportunities builds trust. It builds trust between leaders and their managers, and between leaders and the organization. Both improve engagement and retention. Further, setting appropriate expectations for high-potential talent avoids bad surprises on both sides. It protects leadership talent pipelines and business continuity, as well as reducing the likelihood that leaders find themselves underperforming against their lifetime career potential.

For organizations to realize maximum value from the two changes, they need to be committed to a mature succession management system and a clear communication strategy about high-potential programs. They ensure that their senior leaders and managers are resourced to appraise talent accurately, to develop high-potential talent effectively, and to lead career conversations well and in alignment with the organization’s “talent language” and leadership strategy.

For further information about advancing women's leadership at your organization or embedding career management principles into your leadership talent programs, contact us.

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