Attracting, Developing and Retaining Female Talent: Making It Happen

WOMEN Unlimited recently interviewed Audrey Goodman, who as VP of Organizational Development at Medco Health Solutions, was a long-time WOMEN Unlimited corporate partner.  She currently heads up her own consulting practice and is an Executive Development Consultant for our FEW program, exclusively for women at top corporate levels. 

Audrey is one of the most knowledgeable people we know when it comes to best practices for attracting, developing and retaining female talent.

WOMEN Unlimited (WU) Would you highlight what you see as most important for attracting, developing and retaining female talent?

Audrey Goodman (AG): First of all, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all corporate culture. Women are looking for companies that provide flexibility. Telecommuting and flexible work hours are extremely important to women who often are juggling a great deal personally and professionally. Companies need to have a philosophy that says “We don’t care where you do the work as long as you do the work.”

AUDREY-GOODMANAnother aspect of flexibility is helping high potential women get back on the fast track if they need to take a career break for personal responsibilities such as parenting, illness or caring for a loved one. This approach doesn’t just happen. It has to be planned and thought out by both the women and their organizations.

Flexibility also applies to job assignments. For example, a lot of global companies want their high potential women to take on international assignments, often in their late 30’s—when life/work balance is most challenging. Why not put women in international jobs earlier, after a few years, when they have fewer obligations?

Additionally, to attract and retain female talent, companies need to have a pro-active development strategy that includes: formal development programs, stretch assignments, strategic (not just operational) roles, exposure to senior staff and senior women as advisors.
Finally, in terms of retention, the single most important strategy is for high potential women to look up and not see just men. They need to see women who look like them, who have lifestyles similar to theirs. If an organization wants to keep its female talent, the top can’t keep looking like it has always looked.

WU: What recommendations do you have for engaging men more actively in attracting, developing and retaining female talent?

AG: Organizations have to make their male managers at all levels realize that attracting, developing and retaining female talent is a priority. Specific responsibilities need to be spelled out and managers have to understand they will be held accountable for results. Part of a male manager’s review needs to include whether he’s hired and promoted female talent.
Also, we can’t presume men understand gender bias. We need to teach them how to be inclusive and to help them realize what it feels like from a female perspective when a bunch of men do something together. We have to work with them so they lose their pre-conceived notions of what success looks like.

WU: What are the ROI benefits to an organization of attracting, developing and retaining female talent?

AG: At so many levels, it makes good business sense to attract, develop and retain talented women and help them find career opportunities that benefit both them and the organization. Women make up half the population. Organizations must tap into that talent pool. If they don’t, high potential women will find other outlets, very likely with a competitor.

I recently read an interesting article that said it’s estimated by the year 2025, women will make up 50% of entrepreneurs. These will be the brightest and the best, creating a major talent drain for leading corporations.

WU: Anything else you feel is germane?

AG: Yes. Two thoughts. First, mentoring is wonderful and needs to happen, but it’s not enough. A Harvard Business Review article a few years back pointed out that women were being “over-mentored and “under-sponsored.” I think that’s the case. Mentoring helps women gain insights into their actions and into the actions of others. Sponsoring is about having an advocate who knows both the woman and the corporate landscape. The sponsor is a direct connection to advancement who understands the woman’s career goals; helps her find appropriate opportunities and speaks up on her behalf. We need to focus EQUALLY on mentorship and sponsorship.

Finally, I want to share an interesting story from my daughter’s MBA experience. The program included creating teams of five students to work together. Faculty would never put just one woman on a team because previous experience showed that if they did, women would wind up in traditional roles like note taking or calling the meeting. When more than one woman was on the team, they became more equal to the men.

I think that’s an interesting lesson for all of us to learn.