Helping women rise: Supporting women through sponsorship, allies and mentors

by Debra Canales, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Providence St. Joseph Health

If your organization is like most, you’re struggling to find, retain and develop leaders fast enough to fill the vacancies that the baby boomer generation is leaving behind as they retire. We’ve all known that the talent shortage was coming, but now that it is upon us, we’re having to get even more creative about securing the talent that will enable our organizations to succeed well into the future.

There’s good news: women are an under-tapped resource and are ready and able to step into key leadership opportunities! If you’re afraid your female employees aren’t ready for the challenges ahead of them, here are some things that you can do right now to close that gap:

1. Sponsor an employee resource group or other venue for aspiring women leaders. In our organization, Providence St. Joseph Health, I started an informal dinner club of women leaders I cheekily call “Chicks in Charge.” This group gathers for dinner on a semi-regular basis, to hear one another’s challenges, offer support and mentorship and network. This isn’t a new idea—men have been doing it for generations. But women have been excluded from many of the informal networking venues that men have enjoyed, so we have created some of our own.

2. Ask your mature women leaders to mentor their younger colleagues. Mentorship can be one of the most effective ways to support a young woman’s progress as she navigates the corporate trellis. Navigating to leadership isn’t only an uphill climb. Women are charting new paths to leadership, including taking steps sideways in order to move up. A mentor should give real feedback, be a sponsor and a guide, and help ensure young, capable women are known and thought of for the choice project and opportunities.

3. Use a talent inventory process to ensure you know who your ‘A’ players are. We conduct a talent review process each year that ensures we have visibility not just to the next-in-line for the top jobs, but also to ensure we’re looking at our “deep reach” talent, two or more steps away from the executive suite. By creating greater transparency across our leadership ranks to our brightest talent, we improve the chances that they will be developed and pulled up when the opportunities arise.

4. Ensure the voices of women are valued. Take pause to ensure that your decision-making processes include ample opportunities for the voices and perspectives of women to be heard and fully leveraged. If women comprise a good portion of your executive team, ensure they are not being systematically shut down, talked over or dismissed.

If your executive team doesn’t include its fair share of women, it’s probably time to rethink your recruiting strategy. There are very few top jobs for which there are no qualified women available. Women earn more than 50% of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees each year in the U.S. If you think you can’t find a qualified woman to do the job, it’s possible you’re not looking hard enough.

5. Consider updating your talent development programs. If your development program requires hours and days of classroom time, with little action learning and no real measures of impact, you probably need to refresh your approach. Today’s adult learner isn’t interested in and doesn’t have time for lengthy classroom-style learning experiences. While there is a place for continued formal education, today’s workers expect on-the-job learning that is timely, relevant and delivered in short bursts, just in time.

Our new development program for front-line leaders combines quarterly deep learning with intermittent virtual and mentor-based experiences. We’re also designing our learning to engage multiple layers of leader at the same time: executives as sponsors, mid-level leaders as mentors and front-line leaders as primary learners.