"We need more women in leadership," are the opening lines to the latest Manpower Group report that focuses on conscious inclusion of women in business.

Women make up 50 percent of the workforce. Mara Swan, one of the authors of the Manpower Group report, "7 Steps to Conscious Inclusion: A Practical Guide to Accelerating More Women into Leadership," states that "increasing representation by putting women in support roles like Communications and HR is just not good enough anymore." What's needed is a dramatic shift in mindset by both women and men about the importance of women in leadership roles within companies.

Swan, the vice chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Gender Parity, shared in an interview ideas to get more women in leadership roles. As Swan writes in the report, "Conscious Inclusion is about ensuring all people feel invited in and their human potential is valued."

Look Beyond Your Immediate Circles of Influence
In entrepreneurial settings, founders frequently look to their circle of influence to find talent. Too often, however, the bro-culture of start-ups dominates decisions on who to include in top leadership positions.

Instead founders need to think about their talent legacy. According to Swan, a key question to ask early on in the start-ups lifespan is, "How do you want to be known for addressing this business problem?" She also suggests that founders ask themselves what kind of company do they want to create.

Create an Inclusive Culture Intentionally
I've been asked before if young companies should focus on developing the culture after top leadership positions have been filled. I answer with an emphatic "No!" Founders need to lead by example from the beginning and model leadership practices that align with the desired culture. Waiting to build a culture will lead to a work culture by default--one that emerges based on decisions that may not align with what the founders intended.

Swan points out that the early years of a company are ideal times to purposely hire women into key roles. This sets the tone that gender parity is key to the company's culture and to its success.

Make it Personal
Swan shared a story of how Manpower Group's CEO, Jonas Prising, sent personal letters to each top leader in the company about gender goals and his talent legacy.

Founders of young companies can set the tone for gender parity and equality by communicating consistently and personally why it's important for the company to hire women for key roles. Give each top leader goals that align with the talent legacy objectives.

Be Intentional in Your Messaging
Assuming that women know that they are leaders is a bias that can limit potential. Swan urges leaders to have intentional conversations with women that they too can be leaders.

Have very specific, intentional conversations with women in your company and ensure that they understand you see them as leaders. You need to consciously make them envision themselves as leaders of you company. Be mindful of how a male-dominated leadership team unintentionally communicates what is valued by the company.

Go with Sponsorship Not Mentorship
Perhaps the biggest aha for me during the interview is Swan's preference for sponsorship and not mentorship. When it comes to gender issues Swan has observed in her career that mentorship usually makes women more comfortable with the current culture, teaching women to survive and not thrive in mostly male environments.

Swan urges companies to use sponsorships and select women who are good at developing talent and getting them promoted. The key difference between the two is sponsors use their political capitol and put it on the line for the women they sponsor, they're not simply advisers.

Don't Implement a Gender Program
No matter the size of the company, gender programs rarely deliver outcomes that lead to change. "Programs make woman comfortable with current cultures and make men feel like their doing something [to address gender inequality and parity]" says Swan.

What's key is to shift mindsets and this starts at the top. Manpower's report lists "Change yourself first" as the first step to inclusion. The report boldly states, "Believe it or don't bother. Change must be authentic. If not, people see it as a fad..."

The takeaway for leaders is to align actions and mindset, and be intentional in what you communicate to women and men about gender inclusiveness.

"If you care about getting the best talent, you need to focus on gender parity," says Swan. The goal is to maximize the human potential of every person in the organization. Swan points out that "women are 50 percent of that potential."

It's time that businesses make better use of the talents women bring to the company.

Published on: Dec 11, 2015