The Unwritten Rules


Companies Fail to Address Specific Hurdles to Developing Female Leadership Talent

NEW YORK CITY (April 19, 2011) – Companies looking for their female managers to reach the executive level need to focus on a relatively short list of "unwritten rules" – key selection factors that govern promotion to top – in order to remove roadblocks to women's professional development and combat stereotypical thinking, according to John Beeson and Anna Marie Valerio, an associate of management consulting firm Beeson Consulting.

"Most companies bemoan a lack of leadership talent – and it's only going to become more difficult as the Baby Boomers retire in the coming years," said Mr. Beeson, Principal of Beeson Consulting and author of The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level (Jossey-Bass). "Companies need to reexamine how they develop their leadership, including female managers, and remove the barriers that prevent talented women from reaching the executive level."

"Women encounter roadblocks in the succession-planning process and career pathing that make it more difficult for them to develop the skills needed for top executive jobs. And during succession-planning sessions, stereotypical thinking on the part of decision makers may show up as a reluctance to promote or advance the careers of talented women," added Ms. Valerio, author of Developing Women Leaders: A Guide for Men and Women in Organizations (Wiley-Blackwell).

Although companies need to articulate these "unwritten rules" to men and women alike, the nature of the selection factors—and how they are employed—present special challenges to female managers who aspire to crack the executive level. Organizations looking to overcome the obstacles to the development of women executives need to:

Check for gender stereotyping and promote equality in defining career potential and development planning. HR needs to ensure that the identification of future leaders is based on in-depth group discussions of candidates for executive-level positions. "Discussion facilitators need to test for gender bias in their assessment of a candidate's strengths, development needs, career goals and potential for career growth, both for advancement as well as ‘best fit' future positions," said Ms. Valerio.

In addition, HR should work to ensure that women as well as men are considered for "plum" assignments, which can lead to senior executive positions in the future, for example, general management/line assignments, international assignments and customer-facing positions. "When assigning women to such ‘stretch' assignments, ensure that they receive the coaching, mentoring and skill building needed for success in required areas of leadership and job content," said Mr. Beeson. "Women need to receive candid and constructive feedback regarding their development and should receive a customized development plan designed to allow them to develop and display necessary skills to senior management."

Be aware of the proportion of women being considered for positions that have historically produced senior leaders. "Companies often handicap women by not providing the same job experiences that develop a breadth of perspective on the business as well as depth of knowledge about how the organization operates," said Mr. Beeson. "Line management and customer-facing positions are important roles that can be critical to developing executive skills.

Create measures and track trends in the promotion and retention of women vs. men identified as members of the future leadership pipeline.

Nurture women's networks so that women can share their experiences. Encourage high-achieving women to relate their success stories and their career development strategies to other women in the pipeline of future leaders.

Give women more outward-facing roles. Individual development plans should promote external involvement for women as well as men. Leadership positions in trade/industry associations and high-profile civic and community groups provide opportunities for exposure to external stakeholders as well as leadership experience.

Develop innovative approaches to providing women with global experiences. This experience is vital in many companies, and some women are prevented from taking full-time international assignments due to family commitments.

"While women face even more challenges than men when it comes to reaching the executive level, by being keenly attuned to the factors involved in executive-level selection decisions, organizations can avoid stifling their advancement," said Ms. Valerio.  "By understanding how to remove these roadblocks, companies can avoid wasting valuable talent."

To schedule a conversation with John Beeson or for more information, please contact Frank Lentini of Sommerfield Communications at 212-255-8386 or

About Beeson Consulting, Inc.

Founded in 1998, Beeson Consulting provides management consulting services to some of the largest, most respected companies in the world. Services include succession planning, top-talent development, executive assessment, organization design and executive coaching. For each client, the firm brings to bear best-practice expertise; practical, action-oriented solutions; and a consultative, customized approach. All Beeson consultants have a combination of corporate and consulting experience.

Learn more about Beeson Consulting, Inc.

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