A promising Associate at one of Australia’s large professional firms was on a pathway to becoming a Partner after 9 years in the firm. Although there was no overt gender bias on this pathway, the fact was that out of a graduate intake of more than 50% women, the drop off at senior manager level was considerable. Female partnership figures in the firm hovered at around 12-13%.
The business challenge
The challenges for a woman on a partnership pathway are many and the firm wanted to give their female associates the assistance to overcome this and reduce the drop-off at senior manager level, increasing the female partnership percentage.
The Associate confided that reasons for this drop-off in female numbers might have included incompatibility with family responsibilities, not wanting to be a partner, or not being confident enough – not believing one had the necessary attributes to succeed in the perceived heavy demands of the role. Added to these challenges were the informal, often unconscious barriers implicit in male dominated management cultures – ‘the club’.
The associate added that the attributes linked to success appeared to be the ability to make an impact, excellent people skills, appropriate risk-taking, decisiveness, and of course strong networking. Technical and industry know-how were a given.
The firm wanted its Associate to make it as a Partner and she was nominated, along with two others, to participate in Executive Central’s Women Leading Program – which is a leadership coaching and development program specifically for women – as part of her pathway to partnership.
The firm selected Executive Central’s Women Leading Program for several reasons:
- Executive Central’s diverse learning formats, with an emphasis on experiential learning, participation and immediate implementation;
- Executive Central’s demonstrated ability to interpret and adapt its solution offering to the needs and culture of the client;
- An obvious commitment to leadership development for women;
- The professionalism and seniority of the coaches.
The Associate participating in the Women Leading Program had an initial goal-setting meeting with her internal coach and sponsor at the firm. Although she found this a little confronting at first, she reported that she had thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of the program, including group workshops, individual and pair coaching. The Associate experienced a variety of learning approaches embedded in the program and said that she realised that she had never before had this level of attention on her development as a leader.
“I became aware of a whole set of rules that I had previously not understood,” she said. “The program made the unconscious conscious. It gave me practical skills and was very affirming of my abilities. It really bolstered my confidence.
“Half way through the program I had a Eureka moment, realising that it was not just me facing these challenges, but all of us. A few weeks later I had another illumination: I realised that there was a bigger systemic issue here. In other words, it wasn’t us that needed fixing – it was the system.
“At the first group meeting we were encouraged to find a buddy. I knew that I needed to work on my ‘impact’, and looked around the room for who might help me. At this point in walked a beautiful, elegant woman in a shell pink Armani suit. She just oozed poise and self-assurance! I approached her, and several years on we are still great friends. We discovered in those early days that our needs were complementary and we learned a lot from each other.”
Outcomes and Benefits
The Associate’s increased confidence and acceptance of her strengths enabled her to shine at a leadership level.
“I am still changing, several years on,” she said. “I discovered my strengths and learnt to embrace those strengths. I made partner 9 months after starting the program and the coaching had great impact. It contributed to how I approached both the assessment centre experience and the partner application itself. It changed my orientation to power and influence.
“I asked the chairman of the firm to be my mentor: I never would have done that before. I gained an appreciation of the little things that are important, like a good elevator pitch. Finally I toughened up a bit as a manager of people, creating stronger boundaries for my reports.
“Through participation in Executive Central’s Women Leading leadership coaching program the firm demonstrated commitment to the leadership development of female managers, as well as building its reputation for a strong commitment to diversity. Several of the participants also on the program made Partner. Executive Central has built an ongoing partnership with the firm on the basis of this initial program and as a result many more female associates are making partner.”