Women represent 50 percent of middle management and professional positions, but the percentages of women at the top of organizations represent not even a third of that number. So some people hear that statistic and they ask, why do we have so few women leaders? But I look at that statistic and, if you, like me, believe that leadership manifests at every level, you would see that there's a tremendous, awesome resource of leaders who are leading in middle management, which raises a different question: Why are there so many women mired in the middle and what has to happen to take them to the top?
So some of you might be some of those women who are in middle management and seeking to move up in your organization. Well, Tonya is a great example of one of these women. I met her two years ago. She was a vice president in a Fortune 50 company, and she said to me with a sense of deep frustration, "I've worked really hard to improve my confidence and my assertiveness and develop a great brand, I get terrific performance evals from my boss, my 360s in the organization let me know that my teams love working for me, I've taken every management course that I can here, I am working with a terrific mentor, and yet I've been passed over twice for advancement opportunities, even when my manager knows that I'm committed to moving up and even interested in an international assignment. I don't understand why I'm being passed over."
So what Tonya doesn't realize is that there's a missing 33 percent of the career success equation for women, and it's understanding what this missing 33 percent is that's required to close the gender gap at the top.
In order to move up in organizations, you have to be known for your leadership skills, and this would apply to any of you, women or men. It means that you have to be recognized for using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness in others. Put in other language, it means you have to use your skills and talents and abilities to help the organization achieve its strategic financial goals and do that by working effectively with others inside of the organization and outside. And although all three of these elements of leadership are important, when it comes to moving up in organizations, they aren't equally important. So pay attention to the green box as I move forward.
In seeking and identifying employees with high potential, the potential to go to the top of organizations, the skills and competencies that relate to that green box are rated twice as heavily as those in the other two elements of leadership. These skills and competencies can be summarized as business, strategic, and financial acumen. In other words, this skill set has to do with understanding where the organization is going, what its strategy is, what financial targets it has in place, and understanding your role in moving the organization forward. This is that missing 33 percent of the career success equation for women, not because it's missing in our capabilities or abilities, but because it's missing in the advice that we're given.
Here's what I mean by that. Five years ago, I was asked to moderate a panel of executives, and the topic for the evening was "What do you look for in high-potential employees?" So think about the three elements of leadership as I summarize for you what they told me.
They said, "We look for people who are smart and hard working and committed and trustworthy and resilient." So which element of leadership does that relate to? Personal greatness.
They said, "We look for employees who are great with our customers, who empower their teams, who negotiate effectively, who are able to manage conflict well, and are overall great communicators." Which element of leadership does that equate to? Engaging the greatness in others.
And then they pretty much stopped. So I asked, "Well, what about people who understand your business, where it's going, and their role in taking it there? And what about people who are able to scan the external environment, identify risks and opportunities, make strategy or make strategic recommendations? And what about people who are able to look at the financials of your business, understand the story that the financials tell, and either take appropriate action or make appropriate recommendations?"
And to a man, they said, "That's a given."
So I turned to the audience of 150 women and I asked, "How many of you have ever been told that the door-opener for career advancement is your business, strategic and financial acumen, and that all the other important stuff is what differentiates you in the talent pool?" Three women raised their hand, and I've asked this question of women all around the globe in the five years since, and the percentage is never much different.
So this is obvious, right? But how can it be? Well, there are primarily three reasons that there's this missing 33 percent in the career success advice given to women? When organizations direct women toward resources that focus on the conventional advice that we've been hearing for over 40 years, there's a notable absence of advice that relates to business, strategic and financial acumen. Much of the advice is emphasizing personal actions that we need to take, like become more assertive, become more confident, develop your personal brand, things that Tonya's been working on, and advice about working with other people, things like learn to self-promote, get a mentor, enhance your network, and virtually nothing said about the importance of business, strategic and financial acumen. This doesn't mean that this advice is unimportant. What it means is that this is advice that's absolutely essential for breaking through from career start to middle management, but it's not the advice that gets women to break through from the middle, where we're 50 percent, to senior and executive positions. And this is why conventional advice to women in 40 years hasn't closed the gender gap at the top and won't close it.
Now, the second reason relates to Tonya's comments about having had excellent performance evals, great feedback from her teams, and having taken every management training program she can lay her hands on. So you would think that she's getting messages from her organization through the talent development systems and performance management systems that let her know how important it is to develop business, strategic and financial acumen, but here again, that green square is quite small. On average, talent and performance management systems in the organizations that I've worked with focus three to one on the other two elements of leadership compared to the importance of business, strategic and financial acumen, which is why typical talent and performance systems haven't closed and won't close the gender gap at the top.
Now, Tonya also talked about working with a mentor, and this is really important to talk about, because if organizations, talent and performance systems aren't giving people in general information about the importance of business, strategic and financial acumen, how are men getting to the top? Well, there are primarily two ways. One is because of the positions they're guided into, and the other is because of informal mentoring and sponsorship.
So what's women's experience as it relates to mentoring? Well, this comment from an executive that I worked with recently illustrates that experience. He was very proud of the fact that last year, he had two protégés: a man and a woman. And he said, "I helped the woman build confidence, I helped the man learn the business, and I didn't realize that I was treating them any differently." And he was sincere about that.
So what this illustrates is that as managers, whether we're women or men, we have mindsets about women and men, about careers in leadership, and these unexamined mindsets won't close the gender gap at the top. So how do we take this idea of the missing 33 percent and turn it into action? Well, for women, the answer is obvious: we have to begin to focus more on developing and demonstrating the skills we have that show that we're people who understand our businesses, where they're headed, and our role in taking it there. That's what enables that breakthrough from middle management to leadership at the top. But you don't have to be a middle manager to do this. One young scientist that works in a biotech firm used her insight about the missing 33 percent to weave financial impact data into a project update she did and got tremendous positive feedback from the managers in the room.
So we don't want to put 100 percent of the responsibility on women's shoulders, nor would it be wise to do so, and here's why: In order for companies to achieve their strategic financial goals, executives understand that they have to have everyone pulling in the same direction. In other words, the term we use in business is, we have to have strategic alignment. And executives know this very well, and yet only 37 percent, according to a recent Conference Board report, believe that they have that strategic alignment in place. So for 63 percent of organizations, achieving their strategic financial goals is questionable. And if you think about what I've just shared, that you have situations where at least 50 percent of your middle managers haven't received clear messaging that they have to become focused on the business, where it's headed, and their role in taking it there, it's not surprising that that percentage of executives who are confident about alignment is so low, which is why there are other people who have a role to play in this. It's important for directors on boards to expect from their executives proportional pools of women when they sit down once a year for their succession discussions. Why? Because if they aren't seeing that, it could be a red flag that their organization isn't as aligned as it could potentially be. It's important for CEOs to also expect these proportional pools, and if they hear comments like, "Well, she doesn't have enough business experience," ask the question, "What are we going to do about that?" It's important for H.R. executives to make sure that the missing 33 percent is appropriately emphasized, and it's important for women and men who are in management positions to examine the mindsets we hold about women and men, about careers and success, to make sure we are creating a level playing field for everybody.
So let me close with the latest chapter in Tonya's story. Tonya emailed me two months ago, and she said that she had been interviewed for a new position, and during the interview, they probed about her business acumen and her strategic insights into the industry, and she said that she was so happy to report that now she has a new position reporting directly to the chief information officer at her company. So for some of you, the missing 33 percent is an idea for you to put into action, and I hope that for all of you, you will see it as an idea worth spreading in order to help organizations be more effective, to help women create careers that soar, and to help close the gender gap at the top.