W Power 2024

Think about careers in terms of a web, not a ladder: Jenna C Fisher

For women to wear as much pink as they want, be their authentic selves, and bring their best versions to work, there has to be a fundamental shift in mindset and practices in the world around them, argues Fisher, a leadership expert at Russell Reynolds Associates, in her book 'To The Top: How Women in Corporate Leadership Are Rewriting the Rules for Success'

Published: Jun 7, 2023 09:55:00 AM IST
Updated: Jun 7, 2023 07:12:59 PM IST

Think about careers in terms of a web, not a ladder: Jenna C FisherJenna Fisher, author of 'To The Top: How Women in Corporate Leadership Are Rewriting the Rules for Success'. Image: Kristin Wilt

Q. C-suite gender parity is a long-championed cause. Why a book on this topic now?
I believe the Covid-19 pandemic has created the beginnings of a workplace leadership revolution that could dramatically accelerate the closure of the gender gap in organisations around the world. We are not there yet, but we are on the precipice of something profound.

That’s the thing about cataclysmic events. For all their wreckage, they can also lead to advancements as we navigate our way to the other side. We now face a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to completely rethink our business models, operations, and, yes, our leaders, and accelerate progress towards gender parity.

Q.The pandemic has brought to focus the criticality of skills like compassionate command. What’s the opportunity this holds for women?
Gone are the days of the ‘hero CEO’ who rules with absolute authority. Times of crisis call for leaders with traits like compassion, empathy, and the ability to listen, collaborate, and compromise.

When Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA) analysed the position specifications our clients have us craft to explain the specific skills they look for in their next executive, we found that mentions of terms related to systems thinking, adaptability, being purpose-driven, and inclusive leadership increased significantly between the time periods we studied: 2002–2006 and 2018–2021.

This is good news for women. Because when RRA then analysed psychometric data from Hogan (generally regarded as the leading workplace personality tool) to see how men and women compared when it comes to the most in-demand leadership traits, we found no meaningful difference between the sexes.

Also read: Move from command and control to discovery: Rita McGrath

Leadership is evolving rapidly and, when it comes to leading in 2023 and beyond, women possess just as much of what it takes to succeed as men.

Q. Are we caught in a myth of progress?
There is a misperception that there is already a 50–50 split in the workplace. And up to a certain point, this appears to be true. According to recent research by McKinsey, women and men are roughly on par at the entry-level. But higher up the ladder, the greater the disparity grows. RRA’s own research shows that only 9 percent of CEOs in the largest 100 companies in the S&P 500 index are women. It’s a similar story in other countries. In fact, at the current rate of change, it will take 132 years for women to reach parity globally (according to a 2022 study by the World Economic Forum).

Q. The “collective stumble” at the first step and a multitude of other barriers—how can we address these?
For starters, companies need to radically revamp their hiring, development, and retention practices. But beyond this, they also need to be ready and willing to address deep-seated unconscious biases and overhaul the outdated structures that are holding women back.

Also read: Compromise should be the last decision, not the first: Joshua N Weiss

The Industrial Age models of in-office work were developed by men, for men. Despite all the talk around getting women to the top, the corporate environment has never been designed around women’s needs. But through research for my book, I know there are clear examples of leaders and organisations that have committed to systemic change. Take IKEA, for example. In the 2000s, only eight of their 200 leaders were women. So it invested in rooting out unconscious bias throughout their business, set up a new support network for women, and brought in a new ‘family leave’ policy that decouples parenting from gender. It’s not just about setting targets, it’s about creating an environment that enables women to thrive.

Q. Replacing the ladder with a web—how can this shape alternative paths to the top?
Instead of thinking about careers in terms of a ladder to climb, I now prefer the analogy of a web to be traversed, giving people the latitude to take a not-so-straight line through the corporate rungs.

Organisations need to be more open-minded to bending or extending what we have typically thought of as the successful career arc. Bain & Company has a programme called “Take a Break”, which allows consultants at any level to take a multi-month “mini-sabbatical” for any reason. And they often came back to new and better assignments.

Also read: Treat talent the way you wish to be treated yourself: Roger L Martin

Q. How best can companies fight bias in cultures like that of India?
Assumptions about male expertise and authority result in women being underestimated, undermined, interrupted, or talked over, having their knowledge disproportionately challenged. Let’s at least recognise that this is happening.

Using blind resumes is a powerful way to overcome systemic biases and increase diversity across upper management ranks. The famous “orchestra auditions” by Harvard University found blind interviews increased women auditioners’ odds by 50 percent. Additionally, allow longer periods of time to reach milestone promotion marks. Just because someone is not in the C-suite by 50 doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Towards that end, age should be part of your DE&I programme.

Q. Is technology a leveller of sorts?
While the picture of emerging technology and its effects on the workplace for women is nuanced, the clear upside is that they can be powerful weapons in the fight for parity.

For example, it’s much harder for one person to dominate the conversation in a Zoom meeting. As Christa Quarles, CEO of Alludo, told me: “The thing about remote meetings with larger groups is that everybody’s Zoom box is the same size… It engenders a kind of equality. Everyone’s viewpoint gets represented and it becomes much harder for a few people to dominate.”

Q. Why “ditch perfectionism”?
All too often, women feel this pressure to be superhuman, to do it all—to say yes to everything, to never complain, to never show any sign of weakness or vulnerability. But we’re all human, with self-doubt, foibles, private pains, passions, dreams, and hopes. And ironically, the more we allow ourselves to show that at work, the more relatable and accessible we become as leaders and role models for others.

Also read: Innovation has no borders, no owners: Alex Goryachev

Q. How important is it to not shy away from money talk?
When writing my book, I heard time and again how many women struggle with these conversations. Often, we focus more on where our skill sets are lacking than on what our strengths are. For many, making it about others, rather than themselves, is one construct that can work. You are not just demanding more money for yourself, you are setting a precedent for everyone who comes after you. The more you tackle the remuneration question head-on, the better you become at the art of the ask.

Q. Is networking a way for women to find their voice?
Cultivating relationships within your company and across functions is one way to be seen. But it’s not enough. Getting involved in industry associations and other organisations outside your company is essential. Whether it relates to attaining a new position or higher income, stepping outside those four walls will help you see your worth within the context of the whole marketplace.

Q. Three dos and don’ts for C-suite aspirants…
I feel passionately that it’s not women who need to change. It is the actions and attitudes of companies and their leadership teams. So, here are three things that companies can do to elevate more women—faster.

  1. Know that it can be done. With the right commitment and vision, we can get to 50/50 within this decade.
  2. Be bold, be brave. Get comfortable hiring and promoting “unusual suspects” for top roles.
  3. Rethink definitions of success. We all have biases about what “great leaders” look like. Challenge them.

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