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Measure ‘learning agility’ when promoting working parents

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in Centerpiece,HR Management,Human Resources

by Kathy Woods


working motherThe next time you’re deciding which job candidate to hire or promote, take a second look at that working mother among your applicants—even if she took a few years off to raise children or wants a flexible or part-time schedule.

Businesses that value organized employees, effective time managers, smart negotiators and quick thinkers are looking for the exact skills a parent develops while raising kids.

We know from research that one of the biggest predictors of success in new roles is “learning agility.” That is, people will be more successful in leadership roles if they have the ability to learn from past experiences and apply that learning in new and very different situations.

Female executives say becoming a parent makes them more agile learners. In fact, in a Korn/Ferry Institute survey of more than 100 women executives, more than 90% said raising children develops unique skills that transfer to the workplace. Chief among them: motivating and inspiring others, humility, empathy, energy and confidence.

What parents bring to work

Prior Korn/Ferry research has revealed that women executives tend to excel at being:

  • Integrative—able to process complex social information and inspire others
  • Socially attuned—able to perceive subtle signals
  • Comfortable with ambiguity—possessing the skills to wing it and make “good-enough-for-now” decisions until more data are available.

Yet many of these women say their organizations do not value their unique skills or the expertise they have amassed through their role as parents. More than half of the executives in the survey said having children limits a woman’s career progression. And 29% admitted they either delayed starting families or decided not to have kids because of career demands. Women hold fewer than 15% of corporate executive positions at organizations globally, according to Korn/Ferry data. And women earn one-quarter less than their male counterparts in the C-suite.

If there’s any hint of favoritism toward promoting men or childless women at your organization, consider what you’re missing: competencies ranging from the ability to effectively “read” people and connect with them, to empathy. And consider the value of retaining leadership-quality working mothers by routinely offering them the same advancement opportunities as their male and childless peers—even if they work reduced schedules and take advantage of flextime and telework.

Result: Your organization’s diverse leadership will mirror your diverse customer base.

How to leverage those skills

Here are five ways your organization can leverage the parenting skills that your C-suite-bound employees—men and women—bring to work with them:

1. Objectively measure each employee’s potential for success in a leadership position. Assess a candidate’s learning agility before promoting him or her.

2. Don’t discount a candidate with a gap in his or her résumé that comes from being a parent. Instead, consider that many skills required for managing a family also apply to managing a team, department or company.

3. Identify women who want to rise to leadership positions and have the potential to succeed. Engage them in career development programs. Create networks of women leaders who can mentor each other. Bring those women to the attention of your organization’s existing leaders and create opportunities for senior leaders to spend time with women who are on their way to the top.

4. Seek qualified women for consideration every time there is an opening on the senior leadership team.

5. Create a culture that encourages rather than penalizes working mothers who use work/life benefits and alternative work schedules.

Too many HR pros and others with the power to hire and promote employees overlook the value of parenting in developing high-demand skills. Recognize and reward those skills, and your business will benefit from them.


Kathy Woods is a working mother and senior partner at Korn/Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting. Contact her at Kathy.Woods@kornferry.com.

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