Women in the C-Suite: 4 Breakthrough Strategies

While most companies are talking about gender equality in leadership, these four are walking. Their secrets may open doors for your female talent too.

By Brian Kropp, Ph.D.

Within most conventional wisdoms is at least a nugget of truth. Same applies to the most common theories as to why males occupy the vast majority of the comfy chairs in c-suites around the globe.

But that doesn’t mean women should pack their messenger bags and go home. On the following pages, we introduce you to four companies that didn’t accept the conventional wisdom about women in the workplace. Instead, they dug deeper for answers. They didn’t find glass ceilings or lack of ambition. Instead, they discovered a more nuanced picture, fraught with micro-challenges and blind corners.

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They also discovered what we all seek: Solutions that work. Turn the page to learn how they’re closing the gender gap—and how you might do the same.

Case Study #1: Strategy&

Conventional wisdom: The glass ceiling is in the way.

Reality: There’s no such thing. It’s about micro-challenges.

Strategy&, the management consulting frm formerly known as Booz & Company, has long understood that strong female leadership drives business results. Still, like most companies, it faced two key challenges: retaining female leaders and keeping the pipeline filled with women who have high potential.

Both require more than broad-based policies. Companies need to address the specific pain points that women experience throughout their careers that, in aggregate, make the situation unsustainable. Strategy& refers to these as broken windows—individual challenges that act as banana peels on a woman’s career path. By fixing their broken windows, Strategy& believed it could create a culture favorable to women.

Strategy&’s approach hinged on two critical dimensions: First, engaging women throughout their unique career trajectories, not just when problems arise; and second, minimizing assumptions about aspirations by holding pre-interventions as women are starting to consider their careers.

Strategy& then developed the following four programs to address the long-term needs of women and mitigate challenges before they arise:

Where Everyone Knows Your Name

Challenge: Retaining women and helping them feel valued at the company. Solution: Charge regional leaders with regularly engaging women at the senior associate level and higher. The use of personal storytelling makes this program feel more real: “If she can do it, I can too.”

Plan Your Path

Challenge: Lack of gender-specific career planning for women.

Solution: Partners engage in career discussions when women reach the associate level, giving them a safe space to discuss uncomfortable topics like family and fex time. Women are empowered to plan for the career they desire. Example: If their preference is to not travel extensively, they’re encouraged to cultivate relationships with local clients. 

Build the Bench

Challenge: Far too few visible female role models.

Solution: Source and hire qualified, experienced women. The mere presence of these programs has made that easier— they’re an excellent recruiting tool. They don’t all apply to every woman at every point in her career, but at least one is likely to apply at any point of her career. 

Your Baby, Not Your Billability

Challenge: Seamlessly returning to work after maternity leave. 

Solution: Ease the transition by offering an optional six-month rotation in a baby-friendly role (such as local work in a meaningful role with limited or no travel). This provides women considering a family the confidence that they can realistically return to Strategy& after having a child—and receive the support they need to manage a key work-life transition.


The company received enthusiastic buy-in from employees at all levels after announcing these four programs in 2013. Since then, engagement is up among women. In addition, more women are returning to work after maternity leave and attrition rates between men and women are equalizing.

Case Study #2: Cochlear

Conventional Weapon: Women don’t have leadership aspirations.

Reality: It’s a visibility problem.

Cochlear, the global leader in implantable hearing solutions, has always employed a significant number of high-performing women, but they were chronically under-represented in the high-potential future leader pool. To address the problem, the company created the Leadership Presence Program, which helps female employees identify their personal connection to leadership opportunities within the company. Cochlear identified the following two challenges they needed to overcome to see more gender diversity in their leadership pipeline:

1. Perceived Misalignment

Many high-performing women didn’t see the connection between their personal strengths and ambitions and the leadership roles at the company. 

2. Lack of Visibility

Unlike men, many women simply didn’t have relevant networks to help them understand what a leadership career path would look like and how they could best navigate it.

The Leadership Presence Program helps women fill these gaps. Participants first analyze their personal strengths based on feedback from current colleagues. They’re then paired with a personal coach, who helps them identify their career goals based on their strengths and values.

The final piece is knowing which positions exist and how to pursue them. Many high-performing women don’t have networks outside of their own departments. The program creates opportunities for rising talent to interact with current female leaders to learn more about career paths, different job opportunities, and the “real” requirements of leadership. This helps women understand how their career aspirations can impact the organization. The networking circle the program creates is on the previous page.

Results: In the first three years of the program, 68 percent of participants took on new responsibilities, 52 percent moved up the corporate ladder, and discretionary effort among women increased by 19 percent.

Case Study #3: Telstra

Conventional Wisdom: Flexible work schedules are a special benefit that can backfire.

Reality: Flexible work schedules can’t backfire when they’re the default.

Telstra, Australia’s leading telecommunications company, has long offered flextime to everyone. But it wasn’t being used, in large part because managers weren’t embracing the program. What’s more, employees thought taking flextime would reduce their chances of being promoted. As a result, many women were opting out after starting families.

So the company decided to take a different approach with a program called All Roles Flex. The idea is simple: Every job at the company is flexible in hours and location, and all employees are empowered to create their own work arrangement. The program is based on three components:

1. Be Flexible About Flexibility

This is not a one-size-fits-all program; employees are encouraged to think through what kind of arrangement will work the best for them and meet the needs of the business. They don’t need to explain the reasoning behind their request. Likewise, managers don’t need to approve flexible time, but if they object, they must work with HR and the employee to find a solution. Telstra is not just promoting programs; rather, they are creating a mindset shift about how employees, managers, and leaders view workplace flexibility.

2. Train Managers to Lead Flexible Teams

Telstra found that most managers wanted to take advantage of flexible work arrangements once they understood that flexibility doesn’t take away from business outcomes. It actually increases engagement and productivity—for everyone.

Fact is, the workplace is different than it was a decade ago, and we all need to manage a global, flexible workforce. Telstra found that its more tenured managers were resistant at first, so they must be educated and trained on new technology that will keep them connected to their teams. 

3. Insist that Senior Leaders Model Flexibility

With senior leaders, Telstra first had to prove that All Roles Flex would be good for business, not just individuals. Once that was accomplished, the company encouraged them to take advantage of flexible working arrangements themselves so that others—especially emerging leaders—could see it’s possible and accepted. Those who did were publicly recognized by the company. Showcasing these leaders enabled Telstra to create accountability and peer pressure for their entire senior leader population.

Results: Telstra first piloted All Roles Flex in 2012, and rolled it out company-wide the following year. Since then, Telstra has seen a 38 percent increase in promotions for women. In addition, women are more engaged than ever.

Case Study #4: Alpha Company

Conventional Wisdom: Opting out of the workforce means permanently resigning from the leadership track.

Reality: Nothing has to be permanent.

A multibillion-dollar financial services entity that we’ll call Alpha Company (it asked not to be identified) was seeing a disturbing pattern: Women in senior-management roles weren’t returning to work after opting out to raise children or take care of other family responsibilities. The skill set gap, along with loss of seniority and salary, was demotivating. Essentially, these women believed they needed to start over. 

This pattern was creating a lack of diversity in leadership, and also costing the company money—it was losing female talent that it had spent years developing. 

To address the problem, Alpha created an intensive 10-week “returnship” program, designed to launch women back into leadership after being on the sidelines. The program is open to anyone in the financial industry—not just company alums—who opted out of the workforce within the previous 3 to 10 years.

The returnship program has three goals: Help women relearn how to thrive in high-pressure leadership situations, sharpen skills that might have deteriorated, and reestablish networks and relationships. At the end of the program, as with a regular internship, the top performers often receive permanent job offers. 

So-called professional internships like Alpha’s are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the financial services industry. However, Alpha’s singular focus on senior-level female talent with leadership potential is unique.

Results: Since the program launched, 72 percent of female graduates now hold leadership positions in finance, many at Alpha. Candidates have more confidence to re-enter the workforce and are doing so with similar, or more advanced, skills than when they left.

Brian Kropp, Ph.D., is the group vice president for Gartner’s HR practice. He works with chief human resources officers, heads of compensation, and heads of benefits to develop strategic plans to attract, manage, and retain their top talent. Before joining Gartner, he worked in a variety of roles, conducting different types of economic analyses to drive critical business outcomes.