In Pursuit of the Missing 33 Percent
As a young employee of the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. (now Cigna) in 1972, Susan Colantuono looked around and puzzled at why all of the company’s rank-and-file employees were women, and yet the ranks of management were filled only with men.
Possessed of the potentially disastrous combination of boldness and naivete, Colantuono, all of 22, fired off a memo to the CEO, advising him of the disparity.
To his credit, CEO Henry Roberts took the memo in stride. In fact, he took the matter quite seriously, and the company put in place numerous initiatives designed to support the goals of female employees, including the country’s first on-site workplace day care.
Within a mere four years, a fair percentage of the company’s management positions were filled by women.
Fast forward 40 years, however, and that progress needle hasn’t moved nearly as far as Colantuono imagined it would have by now, and she’s made it her mission to understand why.
Colantuono, author, speaker, and CEO of consulting firm Leading Women, shared what her research revealed during the 3rd annual Alliance of Women in Workers’ Compensation leadership forum, held in conjunction with the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® in New Orleans on Nov. 29.
Top female executives have long stressed the role of mentoring in women’s professional development. But Colantuono said that not all mentoring efforts are created equally – particularly between the sexes.
The advice that mentors commonly give, she said, falls into one of three buckets: personal growth, engaging others and business acumen. Women have received plenty of advice on the first two: speak up, project confidence, set goals, build interpersonal skills, find mentors, network, create a personal brand.
But most women aren’t given much advice, if any, on business acumen. It’s what Colantuono calls the “missing 33 percent” of women’s professional development.
“Understand how your function fuels the growth of the business.” — Susan Colantuono, author, speaker, CEO of Leading Women
The result: The last four decades of business advice given to women has been geared toward helping them move from their early career years into middle management. But it has left most of them ill-prepared to take the next step into the realm of senior executives.
The qualities related to that elusive 33 percent, according to research, account for at least 50 percent of what the C-suite is looking for in potential executives. Engaging others — where women typically outperform men — only accounts for 26 percent of what chief executives value most.
“Engaging others, we tend to double down on that, sometimes to the exclusion of [all other objectives],” said Colantuono.
The Language of Power
The C-suite perception is that women don’t know what’s going on in the industry, don’t have business or financial acumen, and are so focused on doing their jobs that they’re not capable of next level thinking.
That puts the onus on women leaders to develop their business acumen and to demonstrate it effectively.
“Embrace your identity as a leader,” said Colantuono, and take action to fill in the missing 33 percent.
It’s important to keep in mind that the path to the executive level, she said, isn’t all about promotions. It’s about shifting identity and others’ perceptions.
To advance professionally, she said, women leaders should focus on:
- Developing strategic acumen.
- Establishing a track record.
- Cultivating an executive presence.
- Developing external strategic relationships.
- Honing executive level communications skills.
- Seeking out mentoring that earns sponsorship.
Colantuono added that women also need to learn to speak in a way that connects with C-level executives — what she calls “speaking the language of power.”
“What you see depends on where you stand,” she said, explaining that women leaders must learn to look at their organizations from the CEO’s point of view.
Colantuono gave the nearly 400 attendees a 45-minute MBA crash course, parsing the finer points of cash, growth, return, quality, customer churn and more. She encouraged attendees to start paying attention to earnings calls and to other company news.
Women leaders stand to gain a great deal from understanding how such news impacts returns and profitability, and how their own programs do as well.
“Understand how your function fuels the growth of the business,” she said.
Through a series of workshop exercises, she encouraged the workers’ comp professionals in attendance to discuss their roles using the language of the C-suite.
It’s a habit that women leaders can leverage to gain buy-in for new initiatives or investments, but it will only become second nature with practice. Try it while pitching ideas or giving progress reports, she suggested.
“Every day,” said Colantuono, “[look for opportunities to] shift your language to the language of power.”