Fostering Female Talent: Lessons from the Field

Over the years, WOMEN Unlimited has interviewed thousands of managers and executives on how they’ve successfully advanced female talent.


In both our quantitative and qualitative research, managers consistently point to three best practices: providing feedback, offering encouragement and actively enabling advancement. Here’s a brief overview of how managers view each of these areas and some suggestions in their own words.


Providing Feedback

Managers who have successfully advanced their female talent continually tell us that two-way feedback is crucial. It’s the foundation for the development of talented women in the right way at the right time.


For example, Jeffrey Fischer, Vice President, Chubb Group of Insurance Companies points out:

“When I sit down with a woman to have a career discussion, I encourage her to not be modest…to promote her track record. I help her focus on where she wants to go and where the opportunities lie.”


Laura Mezey, Vice President, Bayer Corporation, looks at successful feedback this way:  “I tell people I value them. I also say, when I stop giving you criticism, that’s when you should worry.”


George Odeki, Finance Director of Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive, emphasizes the need to: “Create an environment where feedback is recognized as helpful. Make sure people understand it is in their best interest.”


Offering Encouragement

When asked about how they can help women advance, managers almost universally bring up the need to encourage them.  Managerial encouragement can take many forms including encouraging women to: be less risk averse; become more visible; honestly assess what they want professionally. .


Palani Palaniappan, currently Head of Technical Operations at Sarepta Therapeutics, finds this form of encouragement helpful to his female talent, especially early-career women:  “If I get invitations to speak or write, I often have them do it. Being invited to speak is a great opportunity for the women on my team to show they are confident and knowledgeable experts in their field and that their presence is important and influential.”


For Marc Buzzelli, Vice President of Prudential Financial, encouragement is largely about showing: “genuine interest in a woman’s career development. It’s not just her responsibility. It’s not just your responsibility. The best results will come from a collaborative effort.”


Bill Weber, Co-Founder of Communities at Work and retired DuPont Vice President sees encouragement as making: “women who work for you less risk-averse and more willing to try new things. Keep them from getting too comfortable in their current role.”


Enabling Advancement

Managers point out that in working to feed their company’s talent pipeline, they often have to “let go” of the talented women on their team and enable their advancement through a variety of supportive actions including formal programs, stretch assignments and increased visibility.


According to James McClure, a Prudential Vice President, “Managers can help women advance by providing opportunities for them to both succeed and fail.”


Jeffrey Fischer of Chubb enables the advancement of the talented women on his team by helping them “plot career roadmaps…know their strengths and weaknesses and hone their skills for advancement.”


Laura Mezey of Bayer stresses the importance of: “Meeting women where they are.  You may have a woman you think is ready, but she doesn’t. Don’t write her off. Keep revisiting the question and keep pushing her to take on new challenges.”


Three additional suggestions

As a manager and executive myself with over 30 years of experience in a variety of industries, I fully agree with these strategies; and I would add three more.  Managers and organizations need to show women they are valued not just with their words, but more importantly, with their actions. They need to make it clear that advancement to the highest levels is not only possible, but desirable.


Second, development should be custom tailored to both the woman and her organization. It should mesh the specific skill sets of the company’s female talent with organizational demographics, geographics and long term goals. Evidence shows that customizing development initiatives allows women to more successfully contribute to corporate growth and profitability as they advance in the organization.


Finally, companies need to start the development process early in a woman’s career.  In this way, young, talented women understand that opportunities for advancement are there for them; and organizations gain a head start in attracting and retaining needed female talent.


For more lessons from the field, take a look at What Every Manager Should Know About Fostering Female Talent.