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How To Build And Scale An Effective Women Leadership Program?

Many organisations have moved from generic leadership sessions to programs curated specifically to needs and challenges of women professionals, enabling them to fastrack their growth. Most are in different stages of implementation from small-pilot to scaling their global women leadership programs.

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The Strategic Imperative Behind Gender Diverse Talent

Women have historically been a part of the workforce yet it’s only now that the modern workplace is recognising women talent as a key imperative for business success and realising that the work environment may not be gender equitable. Absence of childcare facilities, lack of flexible work opportunities, fear of missing out on crucial conversations at late evening networking get-togethers and being benchmarked against traditional leadership behaviours are all examples of gaps that organisations are trying to address. What are some of the top reasons that have led to this change? One, talent scarcity is a global issue and building a strong women leadership pipeline has gained strategic importance. Companies that are not investing in growing this rich talent pool risk losing out to competition. Second, some of the traits and leadership behaviours unique to women from participative decision-making to people development are being recognised as crucial to future global challenges. So a diverse talent pipeline aids inclusion but importantly it fosters innovation and change.


Women Leadership Programs - A Case of Missing The Wood for The Trees

One key area that has gained prominence is putting women professionals at the centre of their growth - enabling them to challenge not just external but lesser recognised internal barriers, aiding their discovery of innate talents and finally finding support through a community of women professionals across roles and geographies.

Many organisations have moved from generic leadership sessions to programs curated specifically to needs and challenges of women professionals, enabling them to fastrack their growth. Most are in different stages of implementation from small-pilot to scaling their global women leadership programs.

Though most women leadership programs are well intentioned, there are some big mistakes that come in the way of their success:

1. Weak linkage to business impact - It's easy to start a program but requires consistency and a strong results orientation for it to become sustainable. In the short term, tracking feedback scores, attendance rates, and skill assessment may be useful but in the long-term it needs to be aligned with overall business strategy. For example, one of the IT clients we worked with would monitor the cohort of women professionals for a period of 1 year and set a promotion-led target. If a certain target %age of women from the cohort got promoted, it was seen as a measure of success for the program as it helped those women professionals claim and be ready for leadership positions.

2. Quick fix mindset - Finding themselves to be late in the game and worried about missing out, organisations sometimes jump to a quick solution with no real measure of success defined. There is a larger opportunity to build a strong employee brand, attract good talent, and be recognised among the best places to work if the organisation does not get stuck in short-term optics and focuses on creating long term value.

3. Leaving it only to external partners - Bringing in an external specialist can bring value for the learners, but strategically it may miss the goal when there is limited structured internal support. Consistency is key and if leaders tune-out they also risk missing out on valuable feedback that enables not just growth for their women professionals but cues for fostering a more inclusive work environment.

4. Event-based approach - Without mapping a calendar and launching with a one-off event is unlikely to produce lasting results. It also misses out enabling the virtuous circle of learning possible by grooming women leaders to mentor subsequent cohorts and be internal role models. They become the champions and torchbearers for the program building word of mouth, better participation and helping change the culture bottom-up.


Doing It Right

Non-customized leadership journeys rarely work because they don’t factor in the realities of women in their specific world of work. The realities of the 21st century post-pandemic world have added further complexities to women professional journeys that require to be recognized and acted upon by organisations. Women are weighing in heavily in favour of flexible working as they have found it to improve their work-life balance, improve their mental health and likelihood of staying in their current jobs,

Having said this, what's interesting is that while some challenges that women face may be common across board but many differ depending on organisation and its culture.

This is why a good start point for an effective Women Leadership program is inside the company, researching the context in which women professionals work and understanding their challenges. Once you are clear of your specific internal realities is when you can look outside, learn from best practices and understand the external trends driving the space. This is where you can bring in external subject matter experts (Leadership development companies) to participate and co-create with you a learning journey for your women professionals. Remember, this is not a solo performance, an effective program needs a strong partnership, a waltz between the internal team and the external partner.


How To Identify The Right Partner

A simple online search for ‘women leadership program’ will send you down a rabbithole of programs from leading ed-tech platforms, business colleges, women influencers and a range of learning companies. Finding a program that meets your needs can be challenging. Here are some ideas you keep in mind when making a decision:

1. Value alignment - Understand the key values of the partner, how do they define their ‘why’ and try to match it with your own organisational values and priorities. A partnership approach is likely to be more effective than aiming for a vendor/supplier relationship.

2. Flexibility - A one-size-fit program is unlikely to deliver impact, it’s important to find out if the partner is able to customise their program depending on the unique needs of your organisation and be open to adapt during the course of the journey. There are some easy ways to assess this - Do they run diagnostics before rolling out the program? How do they conduct diagnostics - is it just a survey form or does it include coaches in conversations with learners to understand their needs, challenges and learning styles? Are feedback forms used only to gather scores but also as means to incorporate learners' inputs to the program dynamically? Example - some cohorts may need more break-outs and simulations, others may need more reflection oriented group-work. Your partner’s ability to inject flexibility at different stages of the program can help drive deeper value to the learner.

3. Experience - Remember, progressive clients also help the external partners get sharper at their content and stay relevant. If your partner has worked with clients with mature women leadership programs, they are likely to bring deeper insights to your program. Assess if they have worked with clients in an industry similar to yours, with clients in highly competitive industry segments such as tech, consulting, etc all of which would require for them to operate with greater agility, flexibility and data orientation. What's their breadth of experience?

4. Quality and Diversity of the facilitators - The ultimate test of the program is the quality of the content and the people bringing it to life. Women facilitators bring a lot of first-hand experience and those from their own geography and culture also help build relatability. However, it’s also important to balance unique perspectives by bringing in facilitators from different genders, race, ethnicities, and geographies as it fosters deeper empathy and new perspectives for the learners. They help the learners not to get into the victim trap, recognise the universality of their own challenges and gain insight on different ways to solve for the same challenge.

5. Program Success - It’s important not to get trapped in base metrics to evaluate the overall success of the program. While feedback scores, attendance rates, etc are useful metrics, they may miss out on the quality of the intervention and its impact on the learners. One thing we have learnt that’s powerful is to capture the learners' personal stories at the end of the journey. Having each learner share how the program has unleashed them helps assess the impact, witness the transformation as well as have them become champions for the organisation’s learning efforts.


Sustaining a Women Leadership Program

The journey of women professionals to drive impact in their roles and organisation only starts with the program. Once they have gone through the skills training and reflection processes, it's crucial to assess next steps - are they ready to take on additional roles or projects? Do they need to be aligned with a mentor or a coach to support them to continue their journey? Can

they be offered opportunities to speak in internal forums, gain more exposure? Most importantly, how can they become the advocates, internal champions and mentors for the subsequent cohorts?

An effective women leadership program not only transforms women professionals to perform and exceed in their own role but also enable them to become catalysts of change for other professionals across the organisation.

That’s how CULTURE is shaped and Performance enhanced.


(The article has been contributed by Sandra Colhando, Co-Founder TransforMe Learning)


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