Excluded from the C-Suite? 12 Experts Offer Advice

Even with the much publicized diversity and inclusion efforts of companies in the past several years, chauvinism and biases about gender, race, sexuality, disability and class background are bringing what seem to be insurmountable odds against those who are hopeful in attaining C-Suite roles.

By Leah Kinthaert


The number of female Fortune 500 chief executive officers, for example, dropped by 25% last year while the number of black CEOs has also been on the decline and is at its lowest since 2002. Asian Americans, as Bloomberg recently wrote, “are overrepresented, relative to the general population, in entry-level and middle management jobs”, yet there are fewer than one dozen Asian CEOS in the Fortune 500. Recent data from McKinsey underscores these trends, telling us that “CEOs who took charge in recent years were no more likely to promote women to senior roles than those who became corporate leaders 20 or 30 years ago”. Not surprisingly then “for every 100 men promoted to manager, 60 black women are” and subsequently “men end up holding 62% of manager positions, while women hold only 38%.” A shocking new lawsuit from the US Department of Labor claims that a major US software company intentionally “channelled women and people of color into lower paying careers”. Harvard Business School’s “Working Knowledge” gives the dire advice, which can unfortunately apply here to all those who have suffered prejudice in the workplace: “there doesn’t seem to be much women can do to close (the) gap—no matter how talented, educated, skilled, lucky, ambitious, or genetically gifted they are—unless they can figure out a way to thwart discrimination.”

There are a great deal of articles out there about improving diversity in organizations, but not a lot of information for those who want to do just that – “thwart discrimination”. This knowledge is certainly needed, as new research from BeLeaderly asserts that “working women (51%) have equal, if not slightly greater, ambition than men (48%) to move into top roles ranging from VP to the C-suite”. 72% of senior managers say they would consider leaving their jobs for more inclusive organizations, while 30% of millennials have already left jobs for the same reason. Other than leave their jobs, where the grass may potentially not be greener on the other side of the fence, what can those individuals who are concerned about being excluded from consideration for executive roles do right now? I reached out to 12 executive coaching, leadership and diversity and inclusion experts including: Georgene Huang, Sarah Kogod, Mira Brancu, Deborah Augustin Elam, Jo Miller, Selena Rezvani, Rania Anderson, Dr. Monique Johnson, Jennifer Brown,  Dr. Helen Turnbull, Gloria Feldt and Dawn Quaker to ask them what concrete advice they have for individuals who want to chart a path to the C-Suite. From “stretch assignments” to the crucial importance of sponsors, read advice from those who have succeeded and helped others succeed.

 

Georgene Huang, CEO & Co-Founder, Fairygodboss; @Fairygodboss

“I believe there are a few ways women can chart a path to the C-Suite. Sponsors are instrumental in helping advocate for you and advance your career. Mentors are another way, as well, and can offer advice and guidance as you develop your career path. Outside of building beneficial relationships, I’d also recommend taking on stretch assignments that help elevate your profile within an organization. I’ve also seen employees carve out roles for themselves that may have not existed before by spotting a business need and developing a strategy to address it. While inherent biases can be difficult to overcome, I believe a few of these strategies can help progress your career.”

 

Sarah Kogod, Inclusion Strategist, Kogod and Company; @SarahKogod

“One thing we tend to do when we try to help women in a male dominated workforce is have these super positive, super powerful ‘rah rah’ messages. What we don’t do enough is say ‘These are the Real Challenges’. There are so many blogs out there like ‘5 tips to be a girlboss’ or ‘Getting promoted into leadership roles for women’ but the reality is in most cases there simply isn’t enough room for everyone.”

“We need those amazing women going into elevators and shouting at senators and we need those women who are quietly playing the game and moving up. Unfortunately in many cases, protesting, yelling in an elevator, being a vocal loud activist for women’s rights can also prevent you from getting to the C-Suite in male-dominated spaces. Women often have to choose, especially early on in their careers.

“Another trope you hear about constantly is the ‘seat at the table’. Once you do get that seat, the problems don’t suddenly end. ‘The seat’ has become the symbol of making it, but that cannot be the ultimate goal. I will give you an example. I was once at a meeting, not that long ago, and I was the only woman in the room. Someone mentioned the need to take meeting notes and all eyes turned to me. Not in a pointed way – it was totally reflexive. These men weren’t sexist, they weren’t bad people, it was instinct, something in the not-so-far reaches of the brain that equated ‘woman’ and ‘note-taker’.”

“In that instance, and many others like it, I needed to make a choice about whether to push back or go along with it for the benefit of the project. As a part of a project, especially as a leader, I need buy-in. There are times when I need to present myself in a way that is pleasing, and there are times when I don’t want to be pleasing. Women in these situations need to make a choice, and I want to strongly affirm that both choices are valid for any woman.”

“There are only as many spaces as the people in power have allowed us to have. There will be room for everyone one day, hopefully, but there isn’t now. We have not done an adequate job of preparing women for that reality.”

 

Mira Brancu, Consulting Psychologist, Founder, Brancu & Associates; @MiraBrancu

“In the research paper Interventions That Affect Gender Bias in Hiring: A Systematic Review there are some excellent tips for women aspiring to C-Suite or upper management positions. The authors describe several things that individual women can do to combat discrimination at the hiring/interviewing level, including not speaking in tentative language and balancing the male and female-gendered behaviors.”

“Once you have been hired, it’s critical to identify both mentors and sponsors who can help with professional development and access to important social circles and opportunities. Mentorship is important but sponsorship by those in power is critical. While mentorship provides guidance to employees about professional development and which opportunities to take, sponsorship involves a person with power in the organization (a) advocating to other people in power to consider an employee for important opportunities as they arise and (b) providing access to important social networks that lead to more opportunities. Women need more leaders within organizations to sponsor them for critical leader-making opportunities. Until there is better equity and less bias in hiring practices, that kind of active advocacy is needed and it’s often done through a sponsor.”

“Connecting and networking with other female peers who can serve as a source of support is important to manage potential concerns about discrimination and get feedback about how to manage it. In addition, growing a supportive network of peers, mentors, and sponsors across the organization (across different functions, departments, etc.) will also help further one’s career when opportunities arise for which a female may be considered as a qualified applicant.”

 

Deborah Augustine Elam, President and CEO, Corporate Playbook; @DiversityDeb

“I am one of the first people in a Fortune 100 company leading diversity who was also made a corporate officer, so I was in the top group of 185 people out of 300,000. That was a big deal. A lot of people may have the title, but they may not be in the upper eschelon of the company. I was the first Black female corporate officer in GE’s history.”

“My coaching is focused on individuals who want to make it to the Executive level at an organization, whether it is a company, a school system or a hospital. If I coach you, I will assume that you are good at what you do, that you perform well. My advice to aspirational C-Suiters is twofold: First of all you need sponsors. Women and people of color have fewer sponsors and more mentors while US white men have more sponsors than mentors. You need both, but while mentors provide coaching, a sponsor is the person who is always going to put your name out there. There’s a great book on this topic by Sylvia Hewlett: Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. Make sure you have a sponsor who will speak about you when you are not there. You need your own personal Board of Directors who will give you feedback and insight. But these Board members need to be non-voting members, they are not making decisions for you. You are the CEO for yourself.”

“How do you get a sponsor? You cannot ask anyone to be your sponsor, they pick you. Put yourself in the strike zone. Ask a few leaders in the company to spend 30 minutes with you. Let them know what you are working on. Don’t spend more than 30 minutes, spend 29 minutes with them unless they want to speak for longer. Then when you run into them, let them know how things are going, that you’ve taken their advice. Have your elevator speech ready. Make yourself visible.”

“Is there an African American or women’s network in your company. Do they have a group that gets together to organize help for charities like Habitat for Humanity? Attend those, and make sure to follow up with your contacts. Typically men actively advance their careers, while women don’t follow up.”

 

Jo Miller and Selena Rezvani, Women’s Leadership Experts and co-authors of the research report, “Out of the Comfort Zone: How women and men size up stretch assignments — and why leaders should care”; @BeLeaderly

“Women are less likely to hold the “feeder roles” with P&L responsibilities that generally lead to the CEO role. In navigating to core c-suite roles like COO, CEO, CFO, and Head of Sales, look for a line role that directly, quantifiably advances the organization. You want to be closely associated with a key product, service or manufacturing line, for example, that’s seen as driving hard value – in an irrefutable way. This association can form the basis of your credibility as a leader.”

“If such opportunities are lacking in your organization, consider volunteering for a stretch assignment — a temporary, internal project or role that allows you to showcase your leadership skills and gain valuable new experiences and exposure, while solving a real business problem. Though stretch assignments are proven career-accelerators and one of the fastest ways to blow up your organization’s pre-conceived ideas of what you’re capable of, women are less likely than men to receive them. Scan your organization for problems or gaps, whether it is leading a high-profile task force or transformation, innovating to serve an unmet customer need, or turning around a struggling product or division.”

“Broaden what you know. Making the shift from expert to leader means getting a bird’s eye view of the entire enterprise – whether taking on a strategic project with broad reach, a key operations project that lets you “behind the curtain” or accepting that overseas rotation. Broadening your impact shows your agility and comfort with risk-taking and the ability to work with and lead diverse teams.”

“Our study of 1,500 U.S. professionals suggests that organizations are failing to articulate a clear path for women’s advancement, with 45% of women disagreeing with the statement, “My company makes it easy for me to gauge my readiness to advance internally.” Previous studies have revealed that women receive less specific, actionable feedback, though they request it as often as men do. If your organization makes it difficult to assess readiness to advance, or if you just want to gauge your own readiness more accurately, request clear, frequent feedback—both formal and informal— that is tied to business outcomes, while championing a work culture where feedback is valued and expected.”

 

Rania Anderson, Keynote Speaker, Angel Investor, Executive Business Coach; Author: WE: Men, Women, and the Decisive Formula for Winning at Work; @TheWayWomenWork

“Have the right experiences – in each organization certain roles and functions are the most valued and valuable. Without experiences in these areas, it is highly unlikely that women (actually anyone) can get to the executive level.”

“Achieve notable, visible results that matter to the bottom line. Make their achievement visible – ensure that executives/their manager is aware of their accomplishments, taking credit as appropriate, seeking feedback and asking for the role they want.”

“Gain access to, network with and get sponsored by powerful leaders. This is closely related to the first item but has an important addition which is being sponsored by an influential leader. Today, men are more sponsored than women. Getting sponsorship is not about help and it’s more than support and advocacy. A sponsor uses his/her power and influence to actively co-engage with their protege for career advancement.”

“If we analyze the career advancement strategies of women CEOs and executives we would see that they used all four of these strategies to get to the top. Back in 2011, Catalyst published a report that showed that when high-potential women used same the career advancement strategies used by men – doing all the things they were told would help get them ahead – they advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth. These findings are consistent with what you reference below. Two of the above strategies come from these findings.”

“As importantly, we must positively engage and equip men and executives with the actions they can take that will advance women – actions that will help them advance themselves and their businesses  – (that’s the topic of my new book and my current focus) – this is where we can make the most significance. We have to stop putting all our attention and resources on telling women what to do to advance, we have to also tell men and leaders specifically about the role they need to play.”

 

Dr. Monique Johnson, Owner, Coach and Principal Consultant, Dr. MCJ Consulting; @DRMCJConsulting

“According to Fortune Magazine, five percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women (zero African American women) and .06% (three) are African American males. There’s no easy solution to such low numbers but I admire those who are stepping up to the plate to lead. If your goal is to follow the C-Suite path, although not easy, that’s what you should do. Define your goals for yourself. One thing is for certain, believing in yourself is half the battle.”

“Bias is real and it exists in the corporate culture. Corporate leaders must become part of the solution by acknowledging the barriers and exploring ways to build relationships and bridge the gaps among diverse pipelines. The business case for diversity is not a new phenomenon and has been widely accepted. It’s time to move beyond that to embracing diverse perspectives in innovation and leadership. Corporate cultures must change. This is easier said than done but the following are a few recommendations for the individual aspiring to the C-Suite.”

“Create your own support system. Find a sponsor, a leader with influence, willing to advocate for you behind closed doors. Consider assembling your own board of directors who will help you to focus on key goals and visibility that put you in the right place. Lastly, attend events, join relevant organizations and network with other professionals to enlarge your connections.”

“Sometimes you have to be willing to move out in order to move up. Do your research and be willing to pursue a position outside of your current organization with a more progressive company. Pursue opportunities with companies who are committed to diversifying and have a demonstrated track record.”

“Lastly, working with a coach can help guide you through transitions and provide the support you’ll need. You may also want to explore working with an executive recruiter.”

“Disenfranchised individuals have a desire to learn, lead and advance like anyone else but it can take a toll. Protect your mindset, health, and overall well-being. Set yourself up for success by tapping into your resources and using your creativity. I’m hopeful that the day will come when women and people of color take their position in the C-Suite as their whole authentic self, respected, and valued for who they are and what they bring to the table.”

 

Jennifer Brown, Founder, President & CEO, Jennifer Brown Consulting; @JenniferBrown

“I am constantly challenged to make the business case for inclusion compelling. Many leaders see it as ‘someone else’s problem’. In my work, I see leaders who are apathetic and want to stay asleep at the wheel and some who are actively resistant to diversity. Some people have a bad taste in their mouths about it because it’s seen as a compliance or discipline issue. But lack of diversity is a real threat to the success of business, with lawsuits and poor employee retention costing companies a great deal of money.”

“We know that inclusion generates better ideas. Leaders who can relate to their teams empower them to perform better. What we’re seeing instead is a phenomenon where women and people of color and trans people, for example, are not making it through the pipeline to get to upper level management and the C-Suite due to internal, unconscious biases from management; they are also self-selecting out because their everyday existence is “death by a thousand cuts” – they can sense the subtle and overt biases, they are not getting promoted. Where are they going? Right now Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the US. Many entrepreneurs are refugees from the corporate world. We also see people talking to each other, sharing their experiences and news about companies ‘Did you hear about how this company treated this person’ etc. Lack of inclusion at organizations is having a dollars and sense impact, employees are fighting back by becoming entrepreneurs and switching to organizations where they feel empowered. We will start to see the economic impact more and more.”

 

Dr. Helen Turnbull, CEO, Human Facets; @HumanFacets

“An HBR article concludes that there is not much women can do to close the gender gap. I would argue that there is, but it will require getting yourself to 37,000 feet above the problem and seeing the big picture. There is a logical explanation for the Gender Gap, and it is messy and complex. In my book, The Illusion of Inclusion I explain that if we are going to overcome the challenges of inclusion and create more equitable diverse relationships, we need to understand the complexity of inclusion.”

“There are three Immutable forces and four Permeable Forces at play and they all collude to keep inequity in place. The Immutable Forces are: Dominance – The unequal dynamic between dominant and sub-culture(s); Unconscious bias – We all have them; no exceptions; and Degrees of Difference – We are all individuals, AND members of social identity groups. Within each group there are differences.”

“The Permeable Forces are: Affinity Bias / Mini-Me syndrome – Our propensity to surround ourselves with people like us; Assimilation – Our propensity to want to be liked, accepted and fit in; Political Correctness – Our fear of being misunderstood when we talk about difference; Stereotype Threat – The tendency to take on the negative messages from the dominant culture and turn them on ourselves and people like us.”

“Both genders have a part to play in closing the gender gap. In fact, I would argue that both genders are complicit in maintaining the status quo. We need to have courageous conversations within and across gender groups in order to more fully understand why we are all complicit in keeping inequity in place.”

“Also, contrary to the 2015 research paper the Poshness Test is NOT the new Glass Ceiling. People are disenfranchised by both phenomena, they are two different types of bias which subsequently create discrimination and disenfranchised people. In fact, both things can be happening to the same person; it is part of the Degrees of Difference – which part of my social identity is causing me to be the most disenfranchised; or the most accepted? My accent, my social class, my skin color? Complex indeed. Let’s get busy unpacking this complexity. There are no easy answers.”

 

Gloria Feldt, Co-Founder and President, Take The Lead; @GloriaFeldt

“No one attributes more power to you than you attribute to yourself. I start with that principle not to blame but to inspire women to assess, assert, and ask for their true value. Usually we have more than we realize, much more.”

“And women are more socialized than men to put their heads down and do the work without overtly self-advocating. That puts us at a disadvantage from the get go. But we can rectify that by being intentional about it. Have you documented what you have accomplished for the company and routinely discussed that with hiring managers so they are aware and have acknowledged it both informally and in writing? Have you let decision makers know you want that C-Suite job and asked their help in preparing you for it? Have you built a support system of positive relationships around yourself with your peers and those you supervise as well as with your superiors? Do you have a coach or trusted colleagues outside of the organization from whom you can seek advice and get honest feedback about what your strengths and weaknesses are, and where you might need to shore up your skills or relationships? If you are a woman who feels that male superiors are discriminating against you, here is my handy Gender Bilingual Communications tipsheet that might be helpful in breaking through the implicit bias likely at work.”

“If the discrimination is overt and you choose to go to the company’s human resources department or to consider legal action, you’ll still need to have done all of the above and documented it carefully. I would advise you simultaneously to have your feelers out for a position at another company that will value you properly. Why would you want to work where your contributions and hard work don’t net you a fair shot for advancement?”

 

Dawn Quaker, Entrepreneur & Educational Equity Advocate; @d_Quaker

“Mentorship and the development of a strong network of colleagues and friends are key in transcending the opportunity gap. Seek out people for your inner circle that you genuinely connect with that can help you make moves career-wise and provide the support you’ll need for personal and professional growth. Also, find mentors that hold values and career paths that resonate with you, and share information and mentor, yourself, as it not only helps others, but allows you to own what you know and strengthens your sense of self.”

“Remember: there’s value in your perspective. Whether underrepresentation of people like you in the C-Suite is based on socioeconomics, race, or gender, know that your experiences and perspective hold value and that diversity is shown to positively impact a company’s bottom lines. You are the money.”

This answer came to us crowdsourced via Tiffany Yu and her community Diversability, a great resource to for all to connect, be inspired and get empowered.