What CEO’s Need to Do to Include the Women on their Teams

What CEO’s Need to Do to Include the Women on their Teams

Most of us are familiar with Sheryl Sandberg’s idea that women need to “lean in”, which is a great metaphor for women in business as it empowers them to take charge of their career and how they choose to lead.  The challenge for many women is that “leaning in” can involve “hitting your head against a brick wall”. CEO’s and senior leaders (mostly men), often unknowingly, make it more difficult for women to have a seat at the table, be heard, be included, and be a contributing member of their leadership team.

While we encourage women to continue leaning in, we hope that (mostly male) CEO’s and senior leaders learn to better leverage the unique value of the women on their leadership teams.  Often, male leaders exclude women because they haven’t learned effective strategies on how to build a more inclusive culture.

If you have any doubt about why women’s voices are needed on your team, read the recent blog “Why Women May Be Your Most Underutilized Asset” which shares both the research and brain science case for why more women are needed on leadership teams.

How would a man know what he’s doing to exclude women?

First of all, the idea for this article wasn’t even mine.  It came from a discussion with Sandra Rayner, one of our newest team members at IHHP, who had, in previous roles often been one of the only women in senior leadership roles. She had found that, at times, it could feel difficult to get her own voice heard, but it was a greater challenge for women, in general, across the organization.

Male (and female) leaders should consider what they may be doing to make women feel excluded in professional settings.  Personally, I don’t really know what I may be doing that might make the women in my workplace feel excluded, but I wanted to know, so I interviewed women who have been part of senior leadership teams and reported directly to a CEO.

What women have to say:

“I saw women who had a lot to offer, but who did not contribute because they felt excluded or felt shut down by predominately ‘male behaviors’.  While none of the behaviors were intended to exclude, when the senior leadership is predominantly male, sports talk, aggressive or competitive behavior, interrupting or talking over team members, or even comments to women like ‘don’t worry so much’ can have a deep impact on women in the organization,” explained Sandra.

“It can also be little things that make women feel excluded” explained Kathy Betty, a prominent Atlanta business woman who was one of the first female partners at Ernst & Young “I’ve seen male CEO’s golfing with other men on their leadership team, but they don’t invite the women, even if those women play golf!”

Sandra added, “I have been at golf games for work where 90% of the participants were men.  There were off-color jokes and competitive jibing which would stop women from participating in the conversation.  The unintentional message was ‘be like us or don’t be part of it.’”

In my interviews with women, many of them also talked about the fact that CEO’s listen more to men’s opinions (especially when they are talking louder), and display more confidence in a man’s ability than a woman’s.

If CEO’s are going leverage the unique capability of the women on their team, then this trend must change.

What’s a guy to do to be more inclusive?

During my interviews, I got a lot of great ideas on what male CEO’s and senior leaders can do to minimize exclusionary behavior, and support women being able lean in and contribute fully:

  • Drink the Kool-Aid. According to Kathy “the wrong thing to do is to ‘start a program’ and create some women’s initiative. The first step is the CEO needs to drink the Kool-Aid. Do they really believe that having more women in leadership and having them contribute will lead to better performance?    Culture starts at the top and I could tell when a CEO wasn’t authentic about what they were saying. Actions speak louder than words and CEO’s can start with some low hanging fruit”. Kathy suggested the following action items:
    • Go to your HR person and get the data.
      • Know how many female leaders there are at different levels in your organization.
      • Find out if you are promoting women at the same rate as men.
      • Understand what’s happening with pay and determine whether women at your organization are compensated as well as their male counterparts.
      • Communicate these findings to the rest of the senior team. Showing you are aware of these issues is the first (important!) step.
    • Recruit new talent at schools that have a higher graduation rate for women.
    • For open positions, identify at least one female candidate. You don’t necessarily have to hire them, but it shows that your corporate culture values women. CEO’s can (and should!) ask “what women have you identified for this position”.
    • Make sure you ask the women on your team for input/opinions as often as men.

“When women see the CEO taking substantial action, even on the small things, they start to believe the culture values them” explained Kathy.

  • Manage the guy talk. CEO’s should be aware of how much time is spent discussing sports and other traditionally ‘male topics’ that can be exclusionary to women. In general, it is easy to exclude any population by focusing on certain topics. Single people can feel excluded if the conversation is about family and spouses, or older team members if you are talking about the newest hippest band. It doesn’t mean you don’t discuss these things, you just need to be aware and inclusive. A CEO can simply say ‘that’s enough sports talk’ or just change to topic to something more inclusive, especially if everyone is not participating.
  • Honor all conversations. CEO’s and senior leaders also need to be cautious of deriding male colleagues for behaviors that might be seen as stereotypically female. “Don’t make a joke, no matter how trivial, about a man who is taking paternity leave, taking a cooking class, taking up yoga or choking up over a highly emotional issue,” explained Sandra.  “Women see these comments as subtle judgments of non-traditional male behavior and wonder if men who are taking up traditionally ‘female’ pursuits or behaviors are a joke, then how do you view women?”

“Connection is really important to women and many women try to talk about sports even though they aren’t interested in it.  It’s time for men to reach out and find the connection with the women too. It might be family – kids, parents getting older, etc. – or it could be a passion like education in the community,” added Kathy.

Yes, it’s really that simple to include women in your conversations, it just takes awareness and a little effort.  Oh – and invite women to those golf outings!

  • Recognize the unique value women bring. The IHHP team knows from our extensive research on brain science that, under pressure, women are able to see more context, process more variables, better connect to emotions, and see more unintended consequences vs. their male counterparts.   To learn more about the research and brain science, download our Women Under Pressure white paper.

Don’t allow the narrative to be that the women on your team worry too much, aren’t being decisive or ruminate excessively.  Recognize that women bring unique value, ability and perspective that men don’t have.   And know that, conversely, men often exhibit tunnel vision when under pressure, which can lead men to jump to one particular solution, miss important information, not consider all the potential solutions, and worst of all, not always see the unintended consequences of decisions, especially the impact on people.

Sandra added: “CEO’s can take a back seat at times and listen – and don’t just listen to the squeaky wheels or the loud aggressive types. A CEO can say ‘I’d like to hear from Jane, we all know she has an ability to see more context and solutions in a situation like this.  Jane, what do you think we might be missing?’”

  • You have to deal with aggressive behavior (including your own!). This is a hard one as we need people to be passionate about our business and their opinions.  Additionally, constructive conflict is important in any organization.  In fact, one of my favorite quotes is by William Wrigley, Jr. who said, “When two people in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”  What is clear, however, from my interviews with women (and from my own personal experience) is that overly aggressive behavior from a man (or a woman) shuts people down, leads to poor decision making and disengages key members on a team.

What constitutes overly aggressive behavior?  These are some signs:

  • Constant interruptions. Guilty as charged.  I need to do better at this.
  • Dismissive behavior. Ignoring what another person says or responding with a quick “we’ve tried that” or “that won’t work.”
  • Challenging tone. Someone expressing too much negative emotion, especially anger.
  • Derogatory or disrespectful language. Being is overly critical or belittling another person’s idea. Making it personal.
  • A term popularized in the latest election cycle and defined as “explaining something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing”. Don’t do that.

What CEO’s can do to limit this kind of aggressive behavior:

  1. For starters, I’ll quote Einstein: “Leading by example is not the main means of influencing people, it’s the only means.” CEO’s have to manage their own emotions and behavior first.
  2. Have conversations with your team about what behaviors may shut people down and make a commitment to call each other out when someone exhibits them. Establish a set of rules that enables your team to have heated and passionate conversations where everyone can participate. Make sure everyone remains respectful and polite around their colleagues – even if they have a differing opinion.
  • Encourage CEO’s and senior leaders to “call out the behavior if others don’t”. A simple comment like, “I love the passion we all have, but let’s tone down the conversation” can have a hugely positive impact on ensuring people aren’t being excluded when things get heated.
  1. Articulate the opposing view. Kathy shared “when someone is aggressively defending a position, I’ve seen CEO’s acknowledge that view point, and then say ‘I also think it’s important to consider…’ and give the opposing view”.  It doesn’t mean the CEO is agreeing with either view, but when the senior person in the room speaks up, it can diffuse the aggression and allow everyone to see all sides of an argument.
  2. Provide training, assessment and coaching for all leaders. Learning to be emotionally intelligent, perform under pressure and have difficult conversations are skills that leaders can learn. In fact, according to Harvard research, the abilities of managing our emotions, thinking, and having conversations under pressure are twice as important as IQ and technical skills in determining who will be successful leaders.
  • Sponsor high potential women – CEO’s should identify a few high potential women and sponsor them. Kathy feels that this is of upmost importance. “I see sponsoring as different from mentoring.   Mentors are often assigned randomly and it becomes about the mentor telling the mentee what they should do.  Sponsoring is having a genuine connection with someone and seeing their potential.  A sponsor understands that women may not have the confidence a male has, and helps them see their ability and potential.”

CEO’s and senior leaders should identify high potential women and have a relationship where they tell them what they see in them, know their accomplishments, and express their confidence in them. More than anything, this will be a huge boost to their confidence and help them develop and “lean in”.  Then, the CEO or senior leader can guide the women on what they can to do to develop their potential and elevate their careers.

CEOs and other executives should recognize the benefits that their female colleagues bring to the organization, and create an inclusive, supportive culture that values all employees – regardless of their gender. CEOs should be aware of how women fit into the workplace, paying close attention to a variety of variables – from ensuring equal pay to encouraging inclusive conversations around the conference table. Inclusive, respectful, productive cultures are set at the top, so ensure that you’re modeling good behaviors to set a positive tone for your employees.  Now THAT is the type of company that’s worth leaning into.


Have you read?

1) Making more progress – to accelerate progress look at how you make decisions.
2) Five Ways to Keep Your Brain Young
3) Introverts vs Extroverts: how to manage and get the best from each
4) Cultural Intelligence: New “Q” on the Block

Written by: Bill Benjamin, emotional intelligence, performance, and leadership expert. (Photo credit: Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg image via Facebook)

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