20/07/2017 02:57 BST | Updated 20/07/2017 02:57 BST

Here's What Women Really Need From Companies To Get Promoted

The fact remains that key decisions and unconscious biases greatly impact how far women can go in their career.

pixdeluxe/ Getty Images

Companies are scratching their heads with the following question - how do we grow and retain female leadership talent? We are faced with the fact that 39 percent of businesses in South Africa do not have any women in leadership positions. Moreover, from a global perspective, only 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women.

Here is a typical example of what happens. There is a high potential female and the first thing the company does is nominate her for a leadership programme. Investment done. I firmly believe that leadership development programmes, are great for networking and giving a framework for learning. However, the reality is that it is not sufficient to build a sustainable pipeline of female leaders.

Sponsorship - the secret weapon

I have no doubt that most people have mentors, individuals that provide coaching and guidance on specific matters. Mentors have their place. However, having sponsors is significantly better. A sponsor is a senior person in the organisation who will advocate for you in your absence, they believe in your value. The will use their credibility and decision making clout to sway things in your favour. In many cases, visibility is the key element of progressing in an organisation and having a sponsor to highlight one's achievements is critical. It is of utmost importance to address the issue of sponsorship when looking at leadership development initiatives.

Leadership development in context

In an article titled Why leadership development programmes fail McKinsey outlines that crafting a leadership programme in the context of the company is critical. It's important for an organisation to establish what are the two to three key competencies relevant for them. Focus on these competencies and then provide real opportunities to apply these. Is it entrepreneurial thinking, programme management, financial acumen? Too often leadership programmes are set up with a shopping list of 'traits' and are being concluded in the confines of a 'programme'. Leadership programmes with a very specific focus and allows application in the work environment is key.

Stretch assignments

In my opinion, the number one element related to making a success of any career is to allocate stretch assignments with a mentor. Stretch assignments not only allow women to enhance their existing skills but also to build new ones and create visibility. It has a fundamental impact on building professional relationships within the company. Through delivering results the net effect is inadvertently building sponsors in the company.

Are we not missing out a key stakeholder group?

Here is a thought... instead of sending women on leadership programmes, how about we send key decision makers on a programme. In general, the fact remains that key decisions and unconscious biases impact how far women can go in their career. I have once had a senior male executive say to me "Oh, do you want a career? Really? Do you know that your child needs you? I know there is all this independent woman talk, but really it's not appropriate for a mother'.

Now, you tell me, who needs the leadership development programme?