Women account for 51% of the U.S. population, but that’s not really reflected in leadership in corporate America. Women CEOs run just above 10% of Fortune 500 companies, for example. I had a chat with Jenna Fisher, managing director and head of the CFO practice at the global firm Russell Reynolds Associates, who decided to create a guide to help advance women.
Fisher’s forthcoming book, To the Top: How Women in Corporate Leadership Are Rewriting the Rules for Success, will be released on March 14. “It’s about what companies can do to help keep women on a path to success,” Fisher says. The book includes data-based research and the stories of women business leaders, along with Fisher’s insight.
Over the past 20 years at Russell Reynolds, Fisher says she’s completed about 500 CFO and board searches. What she’s found in her research is that leadership traits such as compassion, empathy, communication, mentorship, and collaboration, which are often held by women, are now in high demand.
But over the years, Fisher says she witnessed “so many incredibly talented women” who decided to leave the workforce to have children, wanting to return after several years away. However, “It was nearly impossible for them to rejoin the ranks of the working in a financially meaningful way, after having been out of the workforce for so long,” she says.
For example, women may fear receiving backlash for asking for higher pay due to a company’s culture. “Relative to men who ask for more, women are penalized financially, are considered less hirable and less likable, and are less likely to be promoted,” according to Harvard research that points to a gender gap in salary negotiations. “Men, by contrast, generally can negotiate for higher pay without fearing a backlash because such behavior is consistent with the stereotype of men as assertive, bold and self-interested.”
Fisher advises women to always know their value in the workplace, and networking helps with that. “I think that women who do a good job of keeping their networks refreshed and alive have better data around what their value is, and what they’re worth relative to others in the market,” Fisher says. “In my book, I talk about the ‘once a month rule.’”
She explains that once a month, women should take time to go out and make professional connections. “Go have lunch with a mentor,” Fisher says. “Go to an industry networking event. Just get out there and do something that puts you in contact with other people. Or even return recruiters’ phone calls. And then say, ‘Hey, what do you think is the going rate for X, Y, or Z position?’”
In her career as a recruiter, Fisher says she’s also seen women hesitant to throw their hat in the ring because they don’t check every box for the job requirements.
“A woman who I recruited for a CFO job years ago was a total rock star,” Fisher explains. “When I was doing the search, I kept getting referred to her. I called her and she said, ‘No, no. I haven’t done investor relations yet.’ I told her that it was okay because she checked all of the other boxes. But she declined to participate.”
Fisher continues, “So ultimately, I figured out who was one of her mentors. And I went to the mentor and I said, ‘Can you please call this woman and tell her she would be amazing for this job?’ She wound up interviewing, getting the job, and she went on to be hugely successful. She’s now at a much bigger company as CFO and on a bunch of public boards.”
I asked Fisher what key actions companies can take if they are serious about promoting women:
1) Design careers like webs, not ladders. “I think we should give people a little bit more grace, especially if somebody’s a great employee and a good cultural fit,” she says. “Let’s give them opportunities to maybe walk for a period in their career and let them decide when they want to sprint.”
2) Managers need to encourage women to apply for promotions and tell them why they think she’s ready. “One of the women I interviewed for the book, Amy Bunszel, EVP of architecture, engineering, and construction design solutions at Autodesk, said to me, ‘Position specifications are like wish lists,’ she says. ‘Nobody is the purple unicorn.’ I think that’s so true. Nobody’s perfect. And there always will be trade-offs that an employer is making when they hire or promote someone.”
3) Offer a pathway back into the fold. “Experimenting with programs like returnships that offer skills, training, and opportunities to get back into the flow of a career,” Fisher says.
4) Develop age diversity. “I think age should be part of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs,” Fisher says. “Beyond the diversity of perspectives, older workers can create psychological safety in the workplace by bringing their wisdom and calm that can help foster greater productivity.”
“I interviewed several women in my book, who are in their 60s and 70s, who are just hitting their stride, who are doing amazing things,” she says.
5) Normalize extended paternity leave. “I think we as leaders of organizations need to create a culture where men do not feel friction about taking the time with their families,” Fisher says. “Otherwise, you’re sending an inadvertent or unintentional message that home and hearth is really women’s work to manage, and that is not morally right.”
See you tomorrow.
Randstad Enterprise’s 2023 Talent Trends Report analyzes the talent and career development priorities for executives in the year ahead. A survey of more than 900 C-suite and HR leaders in 18 markets finds that 77% of respondents said their talent acquisition strategies are more about total value creation for the company than achieving cost savings—compared to 45% of respondents in the 2022 report.
“With the tumult of the pandemic behind us, employers are returning to focus on the opportunity to transform how they retain their people and attract new talent through a more people-focused, mission-driven work experience,” Mike Smith, chief executive of Randstad Enterprise said in a statement.
Gartner has released the results of its annual survey and identified the top five priorities for finance in 2023. The top two priorities: No. 1 is leading finance transformation and organizational change initiatives, and No. 2 is developing and refining the data and analytics strategy. “By 2025 50% of FP&A leaders will have enterprisewide data strategy as a key responsibility,” according to Gartner.
Richard Short was promoted to CFO and secretary at Mercer International Inc. (Nasdaq: MERC). David Ure, CFO and secretary since 2015, will be leaving the company effective June 1. Ure served more than 17 years with Mercer and will continue as an advisor until the end of August. Short most recently served as Mercer’s VP and controller. Before that, from 2006 to 2014, he served in several positions with the company, including as director of corporate finance and controller of financial reporting. Previously he served as director of corporate finance with Catalyst Paper Corporation and assistant controller at The Alderwoods Group Inc.
Alvin Lobo was named CFO at Skillz (NYSE: SKLZ), a mobile games platform. Jason Roswig, who joined Skillz in August 2022 as president and CFO, will now serve as president. Formerly CFO at Score Media and Gaming, Lobo oversaw all financial and accounting operations within the organization. Before that, Lobo spent several years in the gaming industry, serving as VP of corporate finance for Boyd Gaming Corporation and as director of corporate finance and investor relations for Wynn Resorts.
“There’s this risk of a death spiral, where if you lay off a large portion of your staff, everyone who’s left is less happy and more overworked. If you do layoffs, it’s hard to quantify, but it certainly is more challenging to recruit high-quality candidates.”
—Jake Cooper, cofounder and chief executive officer of Grow Therapy, told the New York Times the company never seriously considered laying off workers as demand was still strong and growing, in a Times report on how employers are eager to hang onto workers.