Janina Kugel and other prominent women have reactivated the justified debate about quotas for women. Rightly so, in my opinion – an initiative by the German Chancellor on voluntary quotas about 10 years ago failed miserably.
Is now the time for a quota?
And what else is needed?
As a man, should you even take a stand in this discussion, or would it be better to shut up? I have decided against the latter. Not only because I myself have two daughters (and a son), as well as a wife in a management position. Most of my superiors were women, and I was allowed to accompany the first woman on a German DAX board (Barbara Kux) as a personnel officer.
And over the past almost 30 years, I have been involved in several hundred appointments to management positions in a large corporation. And in the process, I have been able to observe the emergence of diversity and, above all, discrimination as if through a burning glass. Perhaps I have also been complicit – at least I think there are some valuable lessons to share. Most importantly, it leads me to a clear position: we need quotas now! And above all, we need another important measure: the promotion of leadership tandems.
Diversity has long been a goal
As early as the mid-1990s, my employer at the time, Siemens AG, recognized that the management structure was too homogeneously male and German. At that time, I worked in a department that was directly assigned to the CEO. Our boss was a woman. One of the tasks of our unit was to fill the 300 most important management positions. To do this, we had to scout and cultivate about 1200 internal talents as a team. We had tools at our disposal such as assessment centers, interviews, talent programs and also coaching. Although the candidates in this talent pool were nominated by the Group’s own units, we had the opportunity to identify and promote our own candidates.
Our explicit mission was to ensure diversity in the cultivation of young talent.
The lack of non-German candidates was our biggest weakness, because even then 80% of the business was abroad but only a fraction of the executives was not from Germany. This was a considerable competitive disadvantage in many respects.
The lack of female executives in this group was also in the low percentage range. That put us at a disadvantage in the labor markets. I realized later, when I was working for Barbara Kux, the affect that a woman at the top had on female executive applications.
And even then, it is true that there were fewer women than men among the talents (in a technology company, this is plausible, because it is also a consequence of the choice of studies). But more than 30% of the younger talents were women.
What happened then? Why, 20 years later, have these women still not made their way to the top in equal percentages? What has become of them?
The decisive moment: The staffing decision
Despite the great independence of the business units, the group has always regarded the appointment of top executives as a sovereign act. ‘Silo careers’ and ‘rope pulls’ were to be prevented and a performance-related but diverse cultivation of the senior management circle was to be ensured. This was a personal concern of Dr. von Pierer.
The decisive moment in a career was the staffing meeting, which always fell with the participation of the board members. The discussions there revealed a variety of mechanisms that are important to effectively break through the problem of discrimination.
We usually had three candidates to propose:
One candidate was usually the business unit’s preferred successor – in no case do I recall a woman here!
We were able to contribute two further candidates from the pool. In many cases, we deliberately brought in diverse candidates – at times, we always tried to put a non-German candidate and a woman on the list. In some cases, external candidates were also added.
The candidates were usually presented on a form – similar to a CV – and we had the opportunity to describe our impressions of potential and qualities – in writing and sometimes verbally ourselves. The scene resembled a tribunal. And for a long time, there were also assessments by external personnel consultants to further ensure objectivity.
In this round, an exciting discussion often developed about requirements for a position and various discussions about the candidates and their suitability. The company management, personnel board and our management usually had a special eye on the various candidates. The business managers often on their own successor candidate.
In the rarest of cases, the diverse candidates prevailed in these staffing rounds – and I remember a maximum of 2 women making the running in ‘my’ staffing decisions.
There is one crucial factor that unspokenly drove the staffing decision – that was loyalty. Matrix organizations are complex to manage. To successfully implement a strategy, you need political alliances. And these require loyalty. In the case of successor candidates, loyalty comes from years of trusting relationships and networks. And through self-similarity in the selection and promotion of their own subordinate managers.
Every candidate who brings in diverse aspects (this applies to gender as well as a diverse cultural background) always represents a risk from the point of view of the staffing-decision-maker.
Diversity in management teams as an important factor for long-term success was, as I said, already recognized at that time. However, only in the long term and strategically. But in an urgent staffing decision and in the potentially critical corporate situation in which it is often made, diversity and potential are always the weaker argument compared to the obvious one of familiarity and loyalty.
Quota helps with risk taking for diversity
What is needed here is an authority that argues for various candidates with great assertiveness and strong facts. This is exactly what no one dared to do in the pressure situation from the company management – they were too far away from the business and the role. And for the women at the decision-makers’ table, this role is also a very thankless one. She exposes herself to several potential risks – that’s why I’ve often hardly been able to see any solidarity with my female colleagues there:
Who wants to be suspected of discriminating against male candidates? Doesn’t it really take the organization’s stable odor to be taken seriously? If I go out on a limb here, I will be blamed afterwards if it doesn’t work. Can the candidate manage the 60-80 hour job alongside her family?
Such a staffing round is a situation of tension in which all the subtle and overt mechanisms of risk avoidance – which I cannot repeat all here, but which are generally known – come into play.
So, in addition to a lot of prejudice and perception bias among decision-makers, the fact that in the decision between diversity and familiarity/trustworthiness, diversity always presupposes a willingness to take risks.
And in political setups, as in corporations, this is always tied to personalities who are committed to diversity and, above all, the foresight to recognize diversity as a fundamental advantage in a VUCA world.
Boards tend not to be willing to take risks.
This is exactly where a quota definitely helps. It doesn’t have to be 50% right from the start but can be built up in 5-year increments from 30%. And yes, it will also result in a few bad decisions – especially in cases where ‘only’ various token candidates have been developed in recent years and no attractive conditions have been created for external candidates. But in the medium term, the quota will lead to a standard that will become established and will no longer be questioned. This has been the case in the Green Party for decades. The Greens are now also benefiting from this. Diversity creates a competitive advantage in the long term.
Structural disadvantage of female leadership biographies
But: In many appointments with women on the list of candidates, there was an important argument from the other side:
“She’s not ready yet.”
And there was often some truth in that. Many leadership biographies of young women start out very promisingly. Better grades than the men, a lot of discipline, willingness to take on responsibility.
And then there is usually a break when a family phase occurs. Especially then (in their early thirties), when the first children arrive. It is precisely in this phase that male biographies usually gain very important experience as team leaders in project manager roles, etc. Women re-enter the workforce part-time – often below value – and never make up for this shortfall. Only a few women have a care situation that puts them on an equal footing with the majority of their male colleagues – including the willingness to travel.
Should we wait until social conditions and family roles are equalized? The Corona crisis has shown that this is a utopia. We are currently taking steps backwards in terms of gender equality in the care of children.
Leadership tandems as a decisive lever
There is a very effective way to pave the path for young women to enter a leadership biography that is low-threshold and corresponds to their biographical situation: sharing leadership roles and allowing leadership tandems.
A number of organizations have already had many years of positive experience with such a personnel policy model. If introduced correctly, it can be the decisive instrument for facilitating women’s entry into leadership roles and, above all, for retaining women in child-rearing roles in leadership positions.
What is needed is the following:
- Leadership roles must in principle be divisible like other qualified roles – or require justification and approval as to why this is not so
- The dual application of candidates is explicitly encouraged
- The candidates receive extensive professional preparation and support.
This enables women to try their hand in a leadership role. This is a barrier to entry for many young women – because there are not enough female role models.
Here, a tandem offers many possibilities. There are also enormous advantages for the employer – here are just a few:
- Double leadership potential develops
- Performance peaks can be absorbed more easily by 2 people than by one person
- Availability during vacations and illnesses
- Management spans can be larger and handled more flexibly
- Modern (flat) leadership cultures and agile, role-flexible organizational formats are particularly suitable
- It fits not only women, but also the life model of many GenY employees regardless of gender
- At the same time, a leadership tandem provides an attractive exit model for older managers, and such a tandem is a terrific learning opportunity
- In a VUCA world, a tandem is also a resource to cushion ever-increasing complexity and dynamics
- We need creative minds also partially in leadership roles and as individual contributors. So why not a role split in a full-time job?
Experience shows that such leadership tandems are more in line with the cooperation and conflict behavior of women than that of men. But they should be explicitly reserved for men as well, and they should be promoted in the same way.
A task for politics and human resources
This opens up a wide field for future personnel consulting and support work:
- How to find such suitable leadership tandems in organization (and projects)?
- How to support structurally but also individually willing leaders?
- How to recognize and solve conflicts
- How do you supervise and train such tandems?
- How do you discover your leadership style in cooperation with a partner?
- How do you use collegial consulting?
- How do managers of leadership tandems learn to lead them correctly?
- What framework conditions do such leadership tandems need?
For all doubters who think shared leadership is a contradiction in terms:
There are countless examples of this in practice over many years:
Partnerships in management consultancies, joint medical practices or joint law firms – preferably by women, by the way – are tandem models that have been tried and tested over many years and from which corporate management can learn a lot.
The city of Munich successfully introduced such models years ago – my wife benefited from them and lived such a tandem model for many years, maintaining an executive career despite having three children.
There are start-ups that are professionally involved in supporting such models (www.tandemploy.de).
And of course, at Breitenstein we have been accompanying leadership tandems in different constellations with coaching, workshops, etc. for years – and besides, we ourselves are such a jointly leading (male) leadership tandem at Breitenstein.
Leadership tandems are a contemporary form of organizational culture and talent development.
In addition to a gender quota, we need the right legal framework and, above all, coordinated HR work and employment conditions supported by collective agreements.
Nurturing leadership tandems is a very appropriate development tool to support gender quota commitments.