The real reason more women aren’t in leadership

Look at how women are sponsored and mentored in your organization to open the door to new opportunities

I’m lucky. Through the course of my career, I’ve worked with amazing people who have helped me think through the skills I needed to develop. And more importantly, they’ve given me opportunities to advance in my career. With a lot of hard work and their great advice, I was one of the youngest people ever to be promoted to the executive management team at Fluor, No. 149 in the Fortune 500, and the CFO of Longview Fibre.

Along the way, I observed that women advance when they have sponsors and have built relationships.

A sponsor opens the door to new jobs and opportunities. They see the skills you need to develop and they put you in a place where you can learn them. They advocate for you and help you through your career. You may know who they are and you may not.

One of the people who was very influential in my career was Ron Albright. He was both a sponsor and a mentor. While I learned a tremendous amount from him, especially how to think and act strategically, he played a significant role in getting the opportunities to learn and grow at Fluor.

What Ron did for me was extraordinary. He did the same for others, too. In thinking about my career, I realize that Ron treated men and women the same way. He identified talent and moved us into roles that would develop key skills. He had the power to do that as one of the top executives at Fluor.

What he didn’t do was have regular guys-only outings such as golf or drinks after work. And that leveled the playing field.

At senior levels of leadership, the ability to move the organization forward and achieve results is a function of relationships — both internally and externally. When decisions are made, the voices listened to the most are those with whom a trusting relationship exists.

The thing is, relationships develop over golf outings, at sports games and over drinks after work. As the settings are many times relaxed, so is the conversation — and that is when you really get to know people. A level of comfort is developed that doesn’t happen in the four walls of the business.

That’s where the gender gap usually rears its head because women are many times not included in these activities.

The unintended consequence is that promotions and job assignments go to the people that are thought of first – the men that have developed relationships and sponsors through activities outside the four walls of the business.

Now, you may be thinking that your company has an HR process that will ensure what I just described doesn’t happen. If that is true, why are there so little women in senior roles?

The relationships and sponsorships don’t exist. It is always the deciding factor between two otherwise similar candidates. And the lack of senior women is likely impacting your bottom line.

A study by Peterson Institute for International Economics of 22,000 companies globally found that organizations with 30 percent female representation in the C-Suite (board, CEOs and other C-positions) had 15 percent higher earnings than firms with no women in the C-Suite.

The numbers are compelling. So, how do you get more women into leadership in your organization?

Men – you need to be more deliberate about balancing how much time you are spending with men and women in your organization. Do you have regular guys-only outings? Do you spend equal time with the women in your organization? It is not intentional that disparities arise – they are a function of interests. You are creating an uneven playing field by establishing career impacting relationships with some and not others. Be deliberate and consistent in how you spend time with the men and the women in your organization. It may require dialing back some of your outings with the guys.

Women – you need to be more deliberate about finding sponsors in your organization and building your relationships. It is hard if you are trying to balance family and work. If you want to advance in your career, you need to find a way to join in some of the activities where relationships are built. Ask for opportunities within your organization. And find little ways to get to know people. It may be as simple as getting to meetings a few minutes early to chat. If you neglect relationships and don’t have sponsors, it will impact your career.

If you are serious about growing the number of women in your business, it requires taking a hard look at how women are sponsored in your organization. Take a few minutes to reflect on what you can do differently now. What steps will you take to make it happen?

Heidi Pozzo, founder of Pozzo Consulting, helps business leaders dramatically increase their organization’s value. To contact her, visit or call (360) 355-7862.

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