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How most leadership training programs fail women

A woman strikes a pose by the "Fearless Girl" statue in New York. A big investment firm, State Street Global Advisors, put the statue there to highlight International Women's Day. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

The list of reasons more women don't hold top jobs in corporate America is long and complex: Long-ingrained gender stereotypes. Work cultures that value face time over results. A lack of women in the boardroom. A leaky pipeline that does little to retain women in the jobs necessary to get the top roles.

But a new report in the Harvard Business Review points to another culprit: leadership training and development programs. According to the authors of the report, a trio of advisers at the executive search and consulting firm Egon Zehnder, too many corporate training programs value skills and "competencies" without also measuring how employees score on potential, a system they argue overlooks many otherwise promising leaders — especially female ones.

“They’re not looking for the right thing,” said Andrew Roscoe, who leads the firm's assessment and development practice. When companies talk about “high-potential” programs, he said, “they pick their favorites in some way, or the ones most like themselves,” or the people who “brag about how good you are, and that's how you get promoted.” 

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After examining their database of 2,800 executive evaluations globally, the Egon Zehnder team found that men tended to outscore women on five of seven competencies that companies more typically use to evaluate managers — criteria such as strategy, change management and understanding the market. Women outperformed men on collaboration and developing other individuals and teams.

But women outscored men on three of the four “potential” traits — curiosity, determination and engagement — that help predict who will excel when it comes to certain skills. The argument: Because most companies do little to measure employees on these attributes (the fourth, where men slightly outscore women, is "insight") and then often don't use them to predict who can succeed in certain skills, they end up devoting their training budget and efforts to the wrong people, the report suggests.

When an aspiring manager shows a deficiency, Roscoe says, “what companies do is the easy thing: They do a skills training course. 'The research says you're not good at strategy, so we'll send you to business school or bring someone in to teach you strategy.' " But if the person doesn't already have the right traits that show room to improve in those areas, they can only develop so far, leading to wasted effort and missed chances with executives who may be more apt to get ahead. “What the research shows is that's not enough,” he says.  

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In the report, the analysts give the example of two candidates being considered for a chief executive job. One may look better on paper than the other because they score better overall on the skills needed for the job. But if the company looks at how well the two do on the four "potential" traits, they might see that the "weaker" candidate actually has more potential to succeed in those areas than the stronger one.

Roscoe's colleague Miranda Pode argues that companies also face cultural obstacles in trying to develop female leaders. Because there are fewer women in leadership roles, said Pode, who is managing partner of the firm's London office, they tend to “cover” more in the workplace, separating their personal life from their professional one more than men do. That can make it harder to connect with the people they manage. As a result, even if companies put many women into leadership training programs, their cultures can make it harder for them to succeed. “As people get more senior, their ability to drive results is more their ability to drive results through others.”

Companies that do a better job of measuring potential and shift their culture to urge employees to “bring their whole selves to work” — a phrase common with the Facebook executive and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg — could help propel underappreciated executives, and particularly more women, to the top.

“The point here is: What a lot of people default to, when they’re looking to hire or promote, is experience,” Pode said, which can be limiting for women. “Instead of just taking a narrow look at experience, if you layer on looking at potential, it allows you to have a lens that is much broader in your ability to evaluate talent.”

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