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Making Room at the Top: Women and Leadership

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The 100+ events that the Financial Women's Association (FWA) runs annually are often quite special. The 2011 FWA Annual Dinner and Women of the Year Awards was remarkably so. For the first time in the dozen years that I've been at this gala, both of the honorees — Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who runs the Center for Work-Life Policy at Columbia University; and Irene Dorner, the president and CEO of HSBC Bank USA — received standing ovations. That's right — the 800 guests jumped to their feet to roar their approval. Here's why.

Each award recipient used her brief remarks to underscore the woeful under-representation of women in "C-suites" and boards of financial services firms. This was hardly news, since the FWA, for the third year running, has published The FWA100: The Time has Come to document the dearth of female executives in top positions at the New York metropolitan area's 100 largest public companies. But these speakers did more than bemoan the dismal lack of women in the higher echelons of corporate America. Refreshingly, they proposed specific actions to alter this scenario. 

Sylvia Ann Hewlett regularly blogs about changing the work environment for women, highlighting ideas that work at the 60+ companies that comprise the Hidden Brain Trust Task Force that she and her associates at the Center for Work-Life Policy tap in their corporate surveys. Her earlier study Off Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success spotlights enlightened policies, such as flexible start and stop times, seasonal flextime, reduced hour options, telecommuting, and job-sharing that support women trying to build a career while raising a family. Another, Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business is Down identifies other "best practices"  (e.g. team building, non-monetary awards, a sense of purposeful corporate pride, and caring top leadership) that serve to retain talented executives, both men and women.  

But this evening, Hewlett urged each woman to take just one action — get a sponsor, i.e. a person of power and influence within the workplace who is willing to advocate on her behalf for stretch assignments, promotions, or  opportunities created specifically for her. Hewlett's recently issued The Sponsor Effect shows that even more than job performance, hard work, and ambition it is being championed by a respected sponsor that signals advancement within a firm. Sponsorship is mutually beneficial, a two-way street, because a sponsor earns the loyalty and "buy in"of those he has advanced to help execute his vision.

Until The Sponsor Effect hits library shelves, check out  Carla Harris' Expect to Win: 10 Proven Strategies for Thriving in the Workplace. Harris, a managing director at Morgan Stanley, proposes that to get ahead you need advisors, mentors, and sponsors. The Emerging Managers program she runs at Morgan Stanley uses all three to give women and minority-owned asset managers that extra boost.                                                 

Irene Dorner shared her credo that executives who make it to the top have a personal responsibility to pay it forward by fostering conditions where all employees, in particular women and other under-represented groups, have ample opportunity to contribute and be recognized for their talent and perspectives. Letting unwritten rules and biases prevent others from reaching their potential, Dorner contends, is not only a sin, it is bad business. Success in today's competitive global environment requires a diversity of ideas, life experiences, and cultural sensitivities to best understand customers, penetrate markets, and improve operations world-wide. 

Dorner's passion is not just rhetorical. She walks the talk. Several attendees at the dinner recalled a FWA program earlier in the year on Creating Winning Brands across Diverse Cultures. Panelist Nancy Armand was emphatic that at HSBC Bank USA, where she is a senior marketing vive president, respect for the power of multiculturalism starts "at the very top." She cited her CEO's personal involvement in HSBC corporate's observance of Chinese New Year with celebrations that were authentic, respectful of tradition, and inclusive of all staff. This CEO, we now realized, was Dorner. A few weeks later, she delivered the commencement address at Baruch College. Dorner asked that the graduating senior and mentee who had spoken at the FWA  Annual Dinner stand to be recognized for this honor. A meaningful nod to a first-generation Asian woman — and the FWA — from a leader committed to bringing others up the ladder.  

Both Hewlett and Dorner hail from the UK. Each credited their fathers for making them aware of a range of career options and pushing  them to prepare for the Oxbridge educations that served as their respective gateways to success... Here's some reading with more insights into how dads can shape daughters' choices:

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