Clearhouse
Bridging the Confidence Gap in the Leadership Pipeline
Publication Date: September 12, 2018

Nasdaq's Winning Women series seeks to share the insights of successful business women from inside the boardroom and C-suite.

In the second of our series on Winning Women, Caren Merrick, veteran director and entrepreneur, spoke with fellow veteran board member Candace "Candy" Duncan about the important role confidence plays in getting women to the next rung of the corporate ladder. As a former Managing Partner at KPMG who has gone on to serve on several high-profile public company boards, including FTD Companies, Inc. (Nasdaq: FTD), Discover Financial Services, and Teleflex Incorporated, she has unique insights on how to help build confidence in corporate America's pipeline of emerging female leaders.

During her conversation with Caren, Candy shared key insights gleaned from decades of experience as a corporate leader and mentor.

Gender parity is a business issue, not a "woman's issue." The statistics tell a very vivid story; consider for example the Credit Suisse report that revealed that the top 50% of companies with female CEOs experienced returns on equity that are on average 19% higher. Boards are becoming aware that they will have a more powerful team sitting around the table, and hopefully a more positive impact on the bottom line, as they bring more diversity to the boardroom. Technical skills and professional experience continue to be paramount, but boards also need global, regional, ethnic and gender-based perspectives to ensure companies stay relevant.

There is no lack of women qualified to lead, but I have noticed during my career that women sometimes lack the confidence to step up onto the next rung of their careers. "Confidence is the stuff that forms thoughts into action." That quote is from The Confidence Code, a book about self-assurance written by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. It's been my experience that action begets confidence—and many women wait too long to seize opportunities that will help them grow professionally.

Those of us who have made it to the C-suite and the boardroom can have a real impact on the confidence factor. While this isn't exclusively a female issue, it is more prevalent in females than in males. Here are three ways we can help nurture a pipeline of women who are confident and action-oriented leaders.

#1   Encourage talented women in your company's pipeline to pursue challenging roles.

Women in the management pipeline need to be given opportunities to take risks, to make mistakes, to fail—which also gives them opportunities to gain confidence. I noticed a number of times during my career that when a male and female candidate were each asked to apply for a promotion that required multiple skillsets, the woman saw that opportunity very differently. She looked at the list of ten skillsets and said, "You know, I'm only really good at eight of these. Give me another six months, give me another year, I'll get the other two mastered." The male looked at the same list and said, "Great, I'm really good at four! No problem, I'll learn the other six on the job."

Oftentimes the female candidate who hesitates just needs a bit of a push. Obviously, someone thought she was ready, or she wouldn't be considered for the position. More than once during my own career at KPMG, I was asked to take on a role and my immediate response was, "I'm not sure I'm ready for that." I was lucky, because the individuals in those instances said, "Think about it, I'll call you back tomorrow." And in in the meantime, they called my immediate supervisor and said, "Get her straight. She needs to do this." Not everybody has that kind of support in their companies.

Managers should be aware of this "readiness=perfection" mindset and how it can make good candidates hesitate to take on challenging roles, so they are prepared to give them a nudge in the right direction.

#2   Sponsor and mentor high potential women.

Sponsors and mentors are important career catalysts for emerging leaders. I personally had different sponsors and mentors along the course of my career, and I've been a mentor and sponsor myself. These aren't necessarily lifelong relationships, as people need different kinds of coaching and sponsorship throughout their careers.

If you've never served as a mentor, consider it. These relationships are so beneficial to companies because they are a two-way street: My mentees have given me insights into team dynamics issues, industry specific knowledge and ways to use emerging technologies. When I was an audit partner, I'd often sit next to the most junior person in the audit room and tell them to teach me two things by the end of the day. It was amazing how my technology skills soared as they taught me shortcuts and ways to leverage new software platforms.

Sponsors and mentors serve different purposes. A sponsor is often a level or two higher than a mentor. A sponsor's role is to push female leaders to their next challenge. As a sponsor, you make pivotal comments when that woman is not in the room, sharing that she is ready for the next responsibility, the next opportunity. You know her well enough to say, "I think Candy would do a great job at this. She's already done A, B, and C, so D, E, F, and G will follow naturally." And you likely do some coaching and help her make connections to get ready for that next position.

A mentor, on the other hand, is closer on the management ladder to their mentees; likely they mentor direct reports or other professionals who work elsewhere in the company or industry at the same level as their direct reports. As a mentor, you talk your mentees through different issues as they grow and stretch into new responsibilities and challenges. You help them navigate those growth opportunities. You are probably one of the first to know when she makes mistake and one of the first to know when she does something really good. You have the ability to coach, guide and provide constant feedback on a real-time basis.

How did I find these people? Sometimes the relationships happened organically, sometimes they came to me for help and sometimes I was supervising individuals who I thought had the potential to go far. I felt responsible for helping them become even better than I was, because the company as a whole wins when we have a really strong team.

#3   Keep a mental list of female colleagues to recommend for board seats.

Women on boards are in an excellent position to help other women be recruited for board service. Women board members are often approached to join additional boards, at times by companies that may not be a good fit for any number of reasons: we may be over-boarded, or the timing isn't right, or there is too much overlap between multiple company board and committee meeting calendars. When these situations come up, it's important to be prepared to put someone else's name forward, someone who is ready for board service but perhaps not yet on the radar.

Twice I've been approached to join new boards at a time when I was already serving on three others. Both times I declined, but quickly made introductions to alternative female candidates who were very talented and had similar audit practice backgrounds and experiences to my own. Both women were ultimately voted onto those boards.

We all know women who are very similar to ourselves. Women executives have deep networks of female colleagues through the workplace, through professional associations, and through our involvement with women's leadership and advocacy groups like Catalyst, National Association of Corporate Directors, Paradigm for Parity, Committee of 200, and Women Corporate Directors. If you don't belong to one of these groups, look into joining one. Women at the top can—and should—facilitate the process of scoping for talent outside of the normal viewing lens and make introductions to the decision-makers who choose board members.

Now is such an exciting time to be a young professional woman in corporate America. Never before has the younger generation had so many skillsets and competencies that older executives and board members need to stay relevant. The emergence of new technologies within critical domains, such as cyber security, risk management and social media, has opened up unprecedented opportunities for talented young professionals (women included) to move up in the corporate ranks quickly, and move into the boardroom as well.

If I could give rising female professionals who aspire to the C-suite and the boardroom one key piece of advice, it would be this: Don't be afraid to speak up, your voice needs to be heard. If more and more women speak up, we are going to find ourselves in a very different place than we were 40 years ago.

Read the first of our Winning Women series featuring Janet Hill here >> 

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Candace Duncan serves on the board of directors of Discover Financial Services, Teleflex Incorporated and FTD Companies (Nasdaq: FTD). Candy served on the KPMG LLP board of directors from 2009 to 2013, where she chaired the board's nominating committee and partnership and employer of choice committee. She retired from KPMG in November 2013 where she was Managing Partner of the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area since 2009. She is also a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors, International Women's Forum, C200, and Women Corporate Directors.

Caren Merrick is the CEO of Caren Merrick & Co. Previously, she was founder and CEO of Pocket Mentor, a mobile application and digital publishing company that provides leadership development and career advancement. Caren currently serves on the boards of The Gladstone Companies (Nasdaq: GAIN, GLAD, GOOD, LAND) and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. She is also a co-founder and former Executive Vice President of webMethods, Inc., a business-to-business enterprise software solution, which went public on Nasdaq before being acquired.