Ask the Career Doctor: How to retain high potential women in the age of ‘The Great Resignation’

HR managers can build a culture that supports women’s advancement by using key strategies and resources as a hedge against career dissatisfaction.

Q:  In your last column, you offered suggestions on how HR managers can build a corporate ladder that high potential women can climb. As we enter the age of “The Great Resignation” how can HR leaders retain and prevent these rising leaders from leaving the organization?

A: In our program we are seeing many women who are shouldering an extra burden, taking on additional responsibilities at home and at work (where it is not unusual for women to take on additional projects). In truth, high potential women often try to take on just about everything. This is a major reason why women are leaving the workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force in October 2020 than October 2019. With this new reality, HR executives can play an important role in helping these women deal with additional burdens by utilizing strategies and resources to diminish the stress women are bearing.

Here are a few ways HR managers can help women de-stress and use the tools and resources they have in the organization to help them do this:

Mental health for the whole person

HR managers should start by looking at resources they can provide their employees that address the additional stresses caused by the pandemic. These include: how their work is managed, coaching managers and identifying resources to support mental health. HR leaders can coach managers to ensure they are able to support the women on their team prioritize their work so that it encompasses the areas of importance to the organization. We need to help managers work with these women to analyze the priorities that deserve their attention. I recommend an approach that looks at the whole person – so we can help women not expend energy on things that don’t have value in the organization or are not making the woman feel energized and fulfilled.

Career direction

Many women can be promoted and advance in their careers based on a traditional track that is often directed by others. Unfortunately, when that happens, the women can do the job functionally but often find they are in roles that are not satisfying or challenging. This leads to disenchantment and serves as a catalyst to leave the company.

The key, as we have said, is to have managers have coaching conversations that help the women identify the skills and competencies they wish to leverage as they advance their career. Managers can then provide guidance regarding projects that are deserving of their time and attention.

In addition, we want to couple this with the areas of work that afford these women stretch assignments and exposure to different areas within the organization. When women identify the skills and capabilities they want to leverage and understand how these skills create impact for their company and their customers, they gain clarity of purpose. The result is a woman more confident in her abilities, who can identify opportunities for growth and become more engaged in her role and with her company.

Many women face barriers when their career progression is in the hands of manager or leader and end up in a place where they are not fulfilled. Managers can help women identify a subset of skills and capabilities that marry their passion and capabilities – HR can help women apply those skills and purpose to better impact the organization. It’s also important to check in with your employees on a regular basis and encourage them to continually examine their workloads, and work with them to prioritize the most critical tasks. It also may be helpful to provide them with external support, including mental health services so they know they are not alone in dealing with stress.

The process

In our program, we do a 360-analysis that helps women hone in on the subset of skills to build a career path. In turn, this helps women see other perspectives so a career path is built with insight from others. These insights provide the clarity necessary to forge a career path with value for the organization and the individual.

HR should help these talented women have exposure to P&L and other projects that can expose them to opportunities, leaders and mentors who can take part in their career advancement. HR can help identify senior leaders and mentors who can help develop these women. We need to think about interesting and expansive experiences that women can experience so they are ready for more senior roles.

This must be an ongoing active conversation with the woman – a more iterative than directive process.   There is a coaching element that needs to happen; if a woman is apprehensive about a stretch assignment, they need a coach to support them and guide their success if they feel uncertain.

At the end of the day there is no guarantee women won’t leave, but one of the key catalysts for individuals leaving an organization is the sense that they are not valued. It’s important to be empathetic and give women the leeway they need to balance the stress of work and family during this difficult time. Organizations that cultivate a culture of caring and nurturing have a much higher retention rate because of this effort. This should go a long way to retaining the high potential women that are so important to an organization’s success.