Bridging the Gap Between Female Talent and Leadership Roles

Diversity is a topic high on the agenda of many corporations, but how can companies help develop female leadership talent internally and support them in reaching top management roles? Kellogg-WHU alumna Sabine Hansen talks to us about her involvement with non-profit association Initiative Women into Leadership (IWiL) that aims to help close this gap and support women on the path to the top of their professions.

“I am an alumna of the Kellogg-WHU Executive MBA program, which I completed in 2002” says Sabine, “but my background was in technology and I was working for Novell when I was approached by an executive search firm to work for one of their tech clients. I was fascinated in the work they were doing rather than the job they were offering, so I changed my career and as a result, spent more than twenty years in the executive search industry. I recently founded my own venture She4Her Leadership Consulting, a boutique-consulting agency focused exclusively on female talent. This is exciting for me, as I want to concentrate more on what I am good at – helping top women make an impact and gain more influence on supervisory boards in their companies.”

Seeing that there was a disconnect in companies relying on HR talent management programs that perhaps do not consider women already in the upper management levels, Sabine along with three other founders, started the initiative in 2017 to encourage corporations to actively support their female leaders. “A lot of great potentials are stuck in the middle and are invisible to the organization and the top management,” she explains. “With many companies facing stricter regulations and a shortage of top talent, there are significant challenges in filling those top positions from outside and require suitable programs to allow more female talent to filter through. Often the focus is on internal mentoring but when HR drives these programs, the top executive team often picks and chooses who they work with, while the mentees have little choice. If they do not wish to work with that person, it can be damaging to their career.”

The IWiL offers a cross-mentoring program, where commitment from top-level management is crucial. Corporate members are able to send two mentees into the program, who then participate in a ‘life-matching’ session between them and the mentors, through a speed-dating style event. Preliminary meetings allow the organization to identify the needs of the mentee and initiate these sessions. “The beauty of the initiative is that you have a say in who you are working with – it’s completely your choice,” adds Sabine.

One particular participant Anja Harre, who is responsible for overseeing federal construction in the East Westphalia region of Germany, matched with WHU’s Dean Professor Dr. Markus Rudolf, a mentor and member of the initiative. “In our first meeting we carefully analyzed my current professional situation together. His views and ideas as a mentor have been so refreshing and I have already been able to utilize his advice to gain my first small success within my company.” “It has been a pleasure to be a mentor as part of this initiative and to support top female talent in corporations,” says Professor Dr. Markus Rudolf. “This is a value we strive to uphold and encourage within WHU, and to advocate for diversity in leadership.”

So what makes such initiatives so valuable in today’s workplace? “If we concentrate on the top 100 corporations in Germany, the total percentage of female board members is just 7%, while the supervisory board is 33%,” explains Sabine. “We are working to help companies see it as a strategic and competitive advantage to really drive this topic, with the backing of the CEO.”

With around 90% of mentees so far achieving the next professional step in their careers, the initiative not only provides women with mentors but also makes them more visible. “Everyone in the company as well as the outside world recognize them as extremely talented women,” explains Sabine. “It’s a strong commitment and signal from the company to be pushing them forward and getting them noticed.”

“Networks such as these offer women the opportunity to enter a world still dominated largely by men,” adds Anja Harre. “Only when women can establish themselves in key positions in commercial enterprises and prove that such diversity can benefit the economy, will more corporations start to follow this way of thinking.”