Preparing young female executives to take a seat at the table

The positive correlation between women in C-level ranks and the bottom line is demonstrated repeatedly. More than 56 percent of women in the U.S. participate in the labor force, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau and company leaders are continuing to learn that there are business benefits to having hardworking female leaders at the table.

In fact, a 2016 study conducted by EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that organizations with 30 percent female leaders could add up to six percentage points to their net margin. As Sheryl Sandberg once said, “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

As the number of women entering the workforce grows, so too should the number of leadership opportunities available to them. Many companies are taking notice of the growing importance of this demographic, creating intentionality around ways to help female leaders realize their potential.

Three key building blocks come to mind when I think about how we can be more intentional in this space.

Build community
Building and developing a strong community where women can share their experiences and collectively lift each other up is, in my opinion, a no-brainer for companies if done properly.

As an example, our office in Chicago has the Chicago Professional Women’s Network. The network was created to build the confidence of our women professionals and to promote productive business relationships by focusing on unique development opportunities that women define and can control.

The group regularly develops and hosts programs that give women at EY the ability to create a broader network and expand their horizons. This includes everything from the Build Your Own Future half-day networking event to Partners Unplugged, a forum where EY’s partners share candid perspectives about the tough issues that the firm is facing.

Yet networks are effective only if there is a clear focus area, vision and mission for the group and if the mission is understood and respected by the rest of the organization. Actionable goals help keep the group on track for success.

The most successful networks are those that clearly define a need and collaborate with others, including engaging with other networks on projects or partnering with leadership to specifically address that need. One pitfall many groups fall into is trying to do too much. It’s better to succeed at a few great activities than fail at many.

Build trust
I have several trusted, influential people in my life that I consider to be my mentors. Their unique perspectives and advice help to shape the leader that I am today. Just as I depend on my mentors, younger generations are counting on their experienced colleagues for guidance and assistance to reach their full potential.

To me, mentoring means not only helping younger generations gain access to the right stakeholders, experiences and opportunities, but also being able to build trust in the relationship to help a person think through what they really want out of their career, because it’s not the same for everyone. Too many times I’ve sat across from young women who are choosing one path or another because they think they are limited, or because they think it’s expected.

Young women many times have so many balls in the air between careers, family and other obligations that they don’t take enough time to really reflect on what they would define their own success to be. Sometimes as women, we are our own worst critics, and I’ve certainly been guilty of that. Having trusted relationships with those who can be brutally honest with you is key — something I try to offer to those around me as well. To have successful mentoring, both mentor and mentee need to establish responsibility for the relationship. 

Build an environment of empowerment
While it’s important for companies to create inclusive environments that give everyone opportunities for advancement, young women also need to feel empowered to take charge of their own futures.

In May, EY hosted Build Your Own Future, a forum for our employees and clients that explored the question “How can self-reflection empower women?” The event encouraged leading women to take ownership of their careers and purposefully work toward their goals.

One of the tools used at the forum was EY’s POWER Up, a tool to help women dive deeper to uncover the behaviors that can enhance their performance. Using the framework, individuals gain a greater awareness of the skills, knowledge and capabilities critical to their success, find clearer pathways toward their individual vision of success and improve their ability to lead. The “POWER” comes from:

  • Project confidence authentically — exhibit a firm belief in your abilities
  • Own your career — mindfully take control of your career
  • Widen your network — identify and engage mentors, coaches and sponsors
  • Elevate your communication — speak and write with clarity, self-assurance and intent
  • Realize your purpose — know who you are and what you believe

I love the POWER Up tool, as it really clarifies two distinct buckets needed to drive higher success — those behaviors within our control that we can change to improve performance, which is the job of the individual, and those behaviors that create the environment necessary to maximize the individual’s potential, which is the job of the organization’s leaders.

The success of companies depends on strong leadership that is driven to innovate, and innovation is enhanced when we have diverse perspectives at the table. As leaders, we must build the tools and opportunities for female executives to be successful and continue to encourage them to take charge of their future. Doing so demonstrates a leader’s ability to elevate performance that ripples across the organization, which is good for everyone. Is your company doing enough to empower future leaders?