01 Mar 2013
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Leveraging Female Talent

Star women and the ways companies keep them
by Julia Hanna

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The research of HBS professor Boris Groysberg centers on a question that troubles many managers: How do I hire and develop top performers who will contribute to my company's success? The author of Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations (with Michael Slind) and Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance, Groysberg's current focus is on women: both how they succeed as individuals and how organizations can best leverage female talent. His work has led to a new MBA elective, How Star Women Succeed: Leading Effective Careers and Organizations, offered this winter.

How did you become interested in this topic?

About five years ago I was invited to address a conference that a major bank was hosting for all of its female managing directors. I was the only man. When I joined a table for a meal, the conversation died—and when I left, it picked up again. I mentioned what had happened when I gave my presentation. The response? That happens to us every single day.

I had always understood inequality on an analytical level, but that experience gave me more of an emotional connection. I told my wife that I couldn't remember anything that bothered or interested me as much. But I had no skills as a gender scholar. She said, "Well, maybe you should take a look at this anyway. It's full of energy for you."

So what did you do next?

I read a lot of books and articles on gender studies. I decided that I would also talk to people, research some companies, look at the data, and let that inform my path. That's the beauty of being at HBS—finding questions that are researchable but also relevant. I've always wanted to work on the issues that keep executives awake at night. But before you can do that, you have to find out what keeps them awake at night.

Who did you talk to?

At this point, my research associates and I have interviewed over 250 people in the United States and, with the help of the School's research centers, countries all over the world. My sample includes CEOs of large companies, board members, political figures, Olympic athletes, writers, and television personalities, among others. About 10 percent are men.

I understand you're also considering the issue of women and success on an organizational level?

Yes, we've also been collecting quantitative data from companies to determine the effects of diversity and a more inclusive culture on performance. There are many question marks. For example, under what conditions would you expect diversity to have a positive effect on performance? What are the factors that would affect that relationship? Is it about culture, leadership, perspective? How do organizations such as Deloitte, McKinsey, IKEA, and Bank of America think about gender diversity? Which practices work, and which don't?

By the way, I prefer inclusiveness over diversity. Diversity is about counting the numbers. Inclusiveness is about making the numbers count and effecting a cultural change.

Your earlier research resulted in a surprising finding about the difference between male and female star performers.

In a nine-year study of 1,000 star performers in the investment banking industry, one of the big ahas was discovering that the drop in performance we observed after stars transitioned from one firm to another was applicable only to people named Boris. Not Barbara.

Basically, it's a story of institutional barriers. If you're a woman in the field of investment banking, you're a survivor. You have to be among the best to survive in a male-dominated industry. It's relatively easy for men to build relationships within their firm, because most of the people they work with are men, and we tend to build relationships with people like us. Women are more likely to build relationships outside the firm, and those relationships travel with them and help them when they leave.

As a minority, women think much more deeply and carefully about their next move than men. That's why women are harder to recruit. They look at the culture and the leadership team, and they don't take anything for granted, because they've had to navigate institutional barriers to be successful. When men change jobs, they almost expect the new firm to make them better. The only concern of star women is that they'll be able to do their jobs in a merit-based culture and gain access to the resources they deserve.

Can you talk about how this work comes together in your new elective?

There is a dual focus to the course: managing one's individual talents, and managing gender diversity in the workplace. In addition to the research I've mentioned, I drew on data collected from the 75 top-ranked business schools in the United States to see what courses are being offered in the field of women and leadership. And whenever I taught the Managing Human Capital course, I surveyed my female students to ask: If I taught a course on women and leadership, what should it be like? Can a man teach a course like that? Would you take it? So my former students are cocreators of this course, along with academics who have done some of the best work on gender, the many women we interviewed, and the organizations that were open about the challenges they faced in creating an inclusive culture.

Describe what the course will be like.

The emphasis will be on teaching practical skills for leaders who seek to best leverage their own talent and that of the women they work with. Male and female case protagonists will come to the classroom to offer their insights and share their experiences. Students will analyze the career trajectories of successful women and determine the lessons from these women's experiences that can inform their own decisions. Topics will include leveraging strengths, managing both men and other women, finding mentors, networking, negotiating, mapping careers, finding the right organization, managing transitions, achieving work-life balance, and developing the right traits and leadership skills.

The organizational segment will focus on leveraging female talent and the role of leadership and organizational practices in creating an inclusive culture. And students will have the choice of a field-project component that focuses either on the individual or on the organizational aspects of what we've studied in the classroom.

Essentially, the course is about acknowledging the barriers that exist for women right now. They existed 10 years ago, and the likelihood of them existing 10 years into the future is pretty high. So the question becomes, how do you navigate those barriers?

As a man, do you ever get a funny look when you describe the new course you'll be teaching?

The most common response is a pause or dead silence. Quite a few people have told me I shouldn't pursue this, which is precisely what makes me want to do it. I have four kids; two are daughters. I hope they'll be working for organizations that are better than organizations today, and I want to do my part to create that difference.

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