How organisations can increase the number of women in their succession plan

Women in a white shirt with blonde hair standing in front of a table next to a women with dark hair, and an orange top, sitting down

While it’s true that many companies have increased their commitment to supporting women’s advancement within their organisations and improving the gender disparity within leadership teams, plenty are still not achieving their targets for women in positions of leadership.

BIE hosted a roundtable breakfast event and were joined by Chair, NED and Co-Founder of The Pipeline, Lorna Fitzsimons, and experienced CFOs and CPOs, to discuss how organisations can increase female representation in their executive committee (ExCo) succession plans.

The Pipeline was established to address the lack of gender parity in the leadership of organisations, and support organisations to maximise the potential of the talented women they employ. They offer a mix of consulting, coaching and development programmes to clients who want to achieve better talent pipeline outcomes at every level of their organisation.

Understanding the representation gap

The Pipeline’s 2023 annual Women Count report revealed that only one in five commercial roles in FTSE 350 ExCo’s are occupied by women. This is yet another demonstration of the clear gender imbalance amongst ExCo roles that simply can’t be ignored. Lorna emphasised how, the lack of women at this level isn’t because they aren’t there or aren’t qualified – quite simply, they aren’t being chosen.

To understand the root cause for such disparity we need to evaluate the societal norms many have grown up with. Lorna explained that “there is an intrinsic and deeply embedded inability to take risks evenly between men and women in today’s society.” From an early age, men are socialised to take risks and ask for what they want, whereas we find women are “not allowed” to make mistakes.

When we enter the business world, it has been shown that there is a discrepancy in the quality of feedback provided to men vs women. A Harvard Business Review study showed that women typically receive “kinder” feedback than men, which can lead to women being held back in their careers due to a lack of actionable and candid advice. This has been shown to compound for ethnic and racial minority women.

These considerations combined with other key factors such as the severe lack of female leadership role models, explain why more women aren’t selected for ExCo positions. Organisations need to provide structured, actionable feedback to all employees to increase opportunities for women to grow into higher-level roles.

Succession planning

To make real progress in reducing the gender disparity amongst ExCo and senior leadership positions, organisations need to evaluate how succession planning can be improved.

What became apparent at our roundtable was that succession planning can’t just start one level down from the ExCo. It needs to happen sooner. The earlier succession planning starts, the more a culture that focuses on nurturing and developing future talent will develop.

Communicating succession plans to all parties involved to make your successors feel valued and prepared to step up to a higher-level role is also critical. That said, people should not languish on a succession plan without action for too long. Incremental steps should be taken to equip individuals with the skills required to step up. Lorna was clear though that many succession processes are just an exercise in ‘being the bridesmaid and never the bride’ and this is a sure way to discredit the process to all, not just sceptical women.

Another key takeaway which Lorna emphasised, was that when assessing potential successors, leaders need to switch their focus to who would be the best person for the team, rather than the role. Critical skills can be taught, but if you have no women or ethnic minority people in your team this deficit affects the whole team’s performance. MIT’s Institute of Collective Intelligence has studied this for decades. Their research is very clear, gender balanced teams are always the best performing teams, no matter the individuals’ qualifications.

The importance of the CEO

Much like any change across organisations, it needs to be driven from the top. The CEO must raise awareness, by their actions, as well as the ability to articulate the business case, of the importance of having more female representation across the ExCo.

Not only does wider representation offer diversity of thought and lived experience, but the financial returns for more women on ExCos are also becoming clear. A IMF study of 2 million businesses across the Globe found that companies with more women in ExCo positions outperform those that do not.

As mentioned, the CEO is crucial – they must “walk the walk”. And if, as in most cases, the CEO is a man, this means allyship. This will trickle down to the wider company, faster than any words, and encourage a culture that understands equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) benefit all and are key to delivering the business model.

The power of executive sponsorship

Mentorship is offered across many organisations, and some even run specific female leadership mentoring programmes. Although mentoring is a brilliant way to gain specific advice from a trusted advisor, ensuring your talent is noticed from the top of business will unlock more opportunities to enter an ExCo position.  

This is where executive sponsorship comes in. Sponsorship offers women a senior leader who openly advocates for them across the business and for their career progression. A recent study found that women with a sponsor are 20 times more likely to be promoted than those without. However, the reality is that women are 54% less likely to have a sponsor compared to men. The good news is that you are 53% more likely to be promoted if you sponsor other people than those who don’t.

Existing mentors should ask themselves what more they can do to support their mentees and further progress their careers. If an opportunity arises, mentors are well-placed to advocate for their mentee, especially if they’re in a leadership position.

Following this, organisations should assess how they can encourage sponsorship to become embedded into their culture. This could be through internal sponsorship programmes or regular educational sessions on how sponsorship benefits both parties.

In summary

To ensure more female representation in succession plans, a widespread cultural shift needs to occur in organisations.

It must start at the top with the CEO owning succession planning and advocating the importance of female representation at all levels across the organisation. Crucially the only real way of getting succession planning to work and be taken seriously, not just by women but the whole company, is to regularly appoint women from it. This, more than anything, will educate senior leadership and the wider workforce on the business case for reducing gender disparity and how this can be done effectively.

A culture that encourages growth and offers actionable feedback to female employees will allow for earlier identification of what they need to do to progress to senior positions. Finally, use sponsorship to make things that are opaque and transparent, to foster more female representation at ExCo level.

We would like to thank Lorna and everyone who joined us for our roundtable breakfast event and would welcome anyone that would like any further information to get in touch with either or

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