“Having it All,” Part Two: Any progressive CEO’s out there?

In her blog “Having it All, Part One” my colleague, Joan shared her thoughts on The Atlantic’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, by Anne-Marie Slaughter:

“This is more than a women’s issue or a balance issue – and, if we keep defining it at that level, leaders will never summon up the political will to make change. Underlying the pressure towards work-life imbalance is a world view that also drives some common assumptions about what it means to be effective and successful at work. I call this world view the “mastery orientation,” and it has costs not just for life balance but also for organizational performance.”

How do we move away from the “mastery orientation” toward different ways of working that are more consistent with work-personal balance, employee commitment and organization performance?

Progressive leaders recognize a need to shift.

We need a few progressive CEO’s to decide to change the practices in their company. A progressive CEO has two critical traits – a fundamental belief that they don’t know everything and a tenacious commitment to trying new practices to benefit their company.

Once we find the progressive CEO’s we need to help them avoid the pitfalls that could prevent progress. The progressive CEO will have to avoid the urge to label this as a “diversity” or “leadership development” issue. There are many agendas and emotions wrapped up in these issues and a CEO could easily waste a lot of employee time and company money in corporate gripe sessions, or worse, implement programs that alienate the women they want to develop and retain.

Progressive CEO’s need be intentional about what they are solving for – improved organization performance through an engaged, committed and diverse workforce.

Avoid typical approaches to change management.

The CEO also needs to resist reaching for typical approaches to organization change – those tools won’t help here. In the “top down” approach to change the Executive team makes some assumptions about what to do, they form some groups to validate that their ideas are good, and hand it off to HR or mid-level managers to implement the changes. In the “bottom up” approach the company hires a consulting company to come in run focus groups or surveys to find out what employees think and to identify the “low hanging fruit” that an Executive team can implement to demonstrate their commitment to changing. While these approaches may be useful for other changes, I believe they will fail miserably in the shift away from mastery for three reasons:

  • First, as Slaughter pointed out, most women in an organization choose not to discuss their personal life and work/life balance struggles at work. (Many actually down play their family commitments for fear that these commitments will be seen as a distraction or a problem.)
  • Second, most senior and mid-level employees will doubt the Executive team’s commitment to sustainable change:
    • Making a meaningful shift involves changing the attributes we look for in powerful people. Employees know that most organization Executives match the “old” picture of powerful, not the one they claim they want to create.
    • From the view of their direct reports most Executives want tangible results and they want them “yesterday.” Shifting an organization to attract, develop, and retain talented employees who want to successfully manage the conflicts between work and home life is a complex undertaking. There is no simple answer, quick resolution, or easy-to-measure result.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the typical approaches to changing an organization will fail because resolving the “can’t have it all” problem requires the ability to see and move the entire system across multiple levels. Many Executive teams struggle with defining and successfully implementing system-level changes (the reasons behind this one are a whole different blog). Typically, Executive teams want to find the one thing that they can change that will fix most of an issue, but there are too many factors influencing this problem for that approach to effectively cause improvement.

Intentionally shift mind-sets, skill-sets, and common practices in your organization.

If typical approaches to change management won’t work, how do progressive CEO’s create opportunities for leaders that are less likely to cause the kinds of conflicts outlined in Slaughter’s article — and more likely to attract, develop, and retain diverse talent?

The progressive CEO needs to build an integrated change approach focused on shifting mind-sets, skill-sets, and common practices at different levels of the organization.

  • The common practices that are likely to keep your organization stuck in the “mastery” picture of leadership are:
    • Role design
    • Talent assessment
    • Rewards and Performance management

    Evaluate and change these practices to reflect the different ways of working you want to instill.

  • Build a strategic leadership skill-set to help your leaders connect their own interests with the interests of the larger organization. Having this viewpoint will help the leaders resolve potential work-personal conflicts in ways that lead to good outcomes for the individual and the company.
  • Build commitment of existing senior executives by helping them see the benefits of adopting a different picture of leadership. Senior executives select talent, reward performance, and shape the picture of good leadership in an organization. To successfully shift, Senior executives will need to:
    • Adapt their picture of leadership away from “mastery” to a different picture of good leadership (We recommend Collaborative Leadership, but you will need to decide what works for your organization.)
    • Mentor and coach participants in strategic business initiatives to see emerging talent in action
    • Build new skills and perspective so their actions and choices reflect what good leadership looks like to them

Creating an engaged, committed, and diverse workforce – one that is less burdened by the conflicts created by the “mastery” orientation – will require an intentional, multi-faceted approach to shifting your organization. If you want to know more about any of the ideas in this blog, or if you want to loudly disagree or agree, please share your thoughts in the comments.