Confronting the Missing 33% in Executive Promotion!

posted by Dilip on November 18, 2014

By Dilip Saraf

In her excellent TED-X talk Susan Colantuono focused on why, despite 50% of women being in middle management in corporate America (and elsewhere), that population is abysmally low in top executive suites. Colantuono squarely—and correctly—puts the blame for that gap on how women are treated differently by their superiors and mentors, as they evolve their leadership through middle management ranks, and end up coming short when it comes to their executive promotions.

Colantuono identifies three major factors in how candidates are viewed for their promotions into the executive suite: Engaging the greatness in you; Leveraging the greatness in others; and Achieving and sustaining extraordinary outcomes when it comes to business performance. She further asserts—also correctly—that when it comes to assessing the contributions of a candidate in the last category of the three factors, management’s expectations from men and women marching to their next promotion into the executive suite are different.

She contends that men candidates are coached and mentored to focus on Business, Strategic, and Financial outcomes, whereas women are mentored or guided to focus on achieving greatness through assertiveness, socializing across the organization, being confident in their interactions, and mastering other “soft skills.” When Colantuono confronted the mentors about their obvious bias she blamed their “unexamined mindset” for the outcomes of their biases.

As a career coach my experience in this realm is that this “unexamined mindset” (as Colantuono calls it) of the top brass is not merely limited to how women are treated when it comes to their executive promotion, but even extends to minorities as well, as their equal opportunity blind-spot. (I call it their “unconscious incompetence.”). It may further compound itself in minority women. So, in my experience women are a subset of this treatment in corporate America (and perhaps outside) as a subclass of a much larger group that includes other constituencies (first and second-generation immigrants, African Americans, and others).

Having now worked with over 6,000 clients globally I find that minorities (that include women) suffer from different expectations from top management in how they are positioned for senior executive roles. This was borne out in a study done nearly 10 years back in the Silicon Valley where Indian and Chinese middle managers (both male and female) were held back when it came to their promotion to upper management, despite their stellar contributions to the companies’ success in technical advances (Engaging the greatness in you).

Since that decade-old study not much has changed as I witness it first-hand in my practice even today. My experience has also been that it is not just what the top management does not actively do to bring talented minorities into the executive suite, but it is what each of these worthy candidates fails to do, from their side, when they are vying for their next promotion into the executive suite. This aspect of their failing stems from their inability to use their “examined mindset” to develop strategies that allow them to overcome something that they cannot, by virtue of where they came from (I call this “conscious incompetence”) or by virtue of who they are (gender).

Let me explain:

To this last point let me bring to discussion the case of my client in a Silicon Valley technology company. He came to me because he felt that despite his stellar contributions he was being sidelined when it came to his first VP promotion. So, during our coaching sessions I explored the make-up of the executive suite and the composition and the dynamic among those who belong to the select “executive club.” He was frustrated with the technical competencies of that group as a whole compared to what he was able to offer, and when compared to what he had already demonstrated in his superior performance (the first two factors in Colantuono’s talk).

Additionally, he felt that one of the key factors in his not being seen as someone belonging to that “club” was his cultural imprinting and upbringing. While the members of that “club” talked about their weekend golf games and football, he felt that his inability to engage in those “small, bonding conversations” with the members of that “club” prevented him from being seen as “one of them.”

So, during his most recent 12-month performance review cycle we decided to focus on one factor that he could manage: His business performance that could be immediately tied to strategic and financial results that were directly measurable. This is something he previously did not specifically focus on, as he relied on the norms and criteria outlined in the company’s Annual Performance Review.

In addition, we also focused on increasing his social visibility and influencing skills through specific behaviors that he was willing to change. Our strategy was to compensate for his lack of cultural fit (golf, football, and other cultural norms and bonding rituals) with how he improved his sociability with what he was confortable with, rather than faking something with which he was not. He worked hard during the year on both fronts and delivered stellar outcomes that he was able to tie directly to his actions.

The outcome was that he was recently promoted to a VP role (one of the very few of his “kind” in that company) and now he has become a part of that “executive club” despite his “shortcomings” on the social expectations and bonding rituals of that “club.” Since joining that “club” his confidence has increased and he is now looking to move up to yet another level after he masters his game at this one. Now he is learning play golf on his own timeline.

So, what is the prescription for minorities and women that feel left out in their race to the executive suite: Work on contributing to your company’s business success by focusing on Business, Strategic, and Financial outcomes (Colantuono’s 33%) and directly connect the outcomes to YOUR actions on each of these areas. Secondly—and more importantly—figure out strategies that allow you to “fit in” by compensating for what you don’t bring to the “executive club,” using strategies that allow you to become part of that circle, as my client did, before being seen as “promotion worthy.”

Good luck!