What Works: BlackRock’s Women’s Leadership Forum

Peggy Klaus

For the last year, I’ve been on the hunt for what seems like a proverbial needle in the haystack: companies that are actually changing their cultures in order to advance significant numbers of women into the senior ranks. Given predictions that it will take another 25 years to reach parity with men at the senior-VP level and another 75 years after that in the C-suite — yes, we’re talking about 2116 — it’s definitely time for corporate America to “get with a program” before they lose even more female talent and customers.

Thankfully, my digging so far has turned up about a half-dozen companies who are totally committed and focused on changing their internal landscape to an environment where women can succeed. One company that has moved the needle quite substantially, which I mentioned, albeit briefly given limited space, in my recent New York Times article is BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager that employs 12,500 people in more than 30 countries. Since that article came out, many people have asked me for more information on what BlackRock is doing and this article sets forth some of the details.

While founded 25 years ago, by eight partners, including two women, it wasn’t until 2009, when during one of its biggest and most transformational acquisitions (Barclays Global Investors) that the firm got serious about developing more formalized talent management processes and practices, particularly in terms of fostering the advancement of women. They expanded upon the Women’s Initiative Network (WINS), first started by Barclays to develop the full potential of female employees across the board. But about a year later, BlackRock decided that wasn’t enough. They needed a targeted program exclusively for senior women and in 2011 launched the Women’s Leadership Forum (WLF), a yearlong program to address the leadership skills, global networks and sponsorships needed for advancement.

Approximately 40 directors and managing directors throughout the company globally are invited annually to participate in WLF. They are selected from a pool of nominees put forward by the Global Executive Committee (GEC), BlackRock’s highest level decision-making body, comprised of approximately 22 executives, responsible for key activities and operations. GEC members are responsible for nominating individuals from their sector ensuring that the WLF cohort represents a balanced mix of functions, businesses and locations, given that part of the power of the program is connecting women globally. A key criterion for selection is being seen as a high-performing corporate athlete, so to speak, with the potential to expand enterprise leadership scope by moving into a larger role in a specific domain or across functions.

Winning Results

More than 160 women have completed the WLF program, and it is now a highly-coveted opportunity within the firm. Two-thirds of the participants from the pilot program moved into new or expanded roles within approximately a year, and since then, 89 percent of alumnae have achieved similar success. For example, Anne Ackerley, who was COO for BlackRock’s Global Client Group when she entered the program, has since gone on to serve as the firm’s CMO, and last year was tapped to lead the Defined Contribution Group. Kathryn Barnes, who raised her hand for the position of COO of the firm’s Australia business and was considered the top candidate for the position, was named to the role upon returning from maternity leave.

Further, 71 percent of the alumnae who began the program as directors have since been promoted to managing director. In 2013, one-third of managing directors’ promotions were women, a level nearly sustained in 2014 and 2015. For comparison, in 2015 Goldman Sachs touted that a quarter of its new management directors were women, a record breaking proportion for the firm.

But WLF participation has led to more than just new or expanded roles. The program has proven to be equally valuable in terms of gaining membership on influential governance bodies: the Global Executive Committee, Global Operating Committee and Human Capital Committee, among others. Notably too, during the last four years, employee opinion scores on measures for women and the firm’s commitment to diversity particularly among women at the director level and above have significantly improved.

Top Ten Success Factors

So what are some of the key components of the WLF program that are driving its success? For perspective, I spoke with two talent and diversity veterans who were involved in the program’s design and rollout: Kara Helander, Managing Director at BlackRock, who recently stepped down as Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, but remains an advisor to the firm’s senior leadership, and Anne Weisberg, the firm’s former Director of Diversity and Inclusion in 2011 and 2012, who is currently serving as the Women’s Initiative Director at the law practice of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP in Manhattan.They both agreed that taking a comprehensive approach and a combination of other factors contributed to the program’s effectiveness. My discussion with each generated the following key insights.

#1: Lead from the Top

From the very beginning Laurence (Larry) Fink, BlackRock’s Chairman and CEO, along with members of the Board, GEC and other governance committees, invested significant time, energy and money in the program Without this level of leadership, commitment and investment at the top, the success of WLF would have been greatly diminished.

#2: Make the Business Case

As BlackRock has grown into a truly global firm, so has the business case for diversity. As Barbara Novick, co-founder, vice chairman and member of the GEC put it:, “First, groups make better choices if they have diverse opinions. Second, our customers notice and care. Third, our employees notice and care.” Indeed, BlackRock has been vigilant about consistently linking the firm’s talent strategy to business goals.

#3: Close The Gaps

Driven by both internal and external research, the program was designed exclusively to fill gaps and help equip senior women with specific insights, skills and strategies needed to navigate the unique landscape they face as females in business, be it at BlackRock or elsewhere. In addition, in their desire to keep WLF unique, they have cautiously avoided replicating other programs available for men and women elsewhere in the firm.

#4: Start With a 360 Degree Assessment

The program begins by providing each woman with an in-depth assessment and feedback on individual performance. This step is critical for two key reasons as Weisberg explained, “First, research has shown that there’s a big gap in the quantity and quality of feedback women receive, especially the higher up they go. Second, feedback is absolutely essential to career growth. You can’t move up without tremendous awareness of who you are and how others perceive you. Self-awareness is also a pre-condition for understanding where you want to go and how best to get there.”

#5: Complement with Executive Coaching and Career Planning

Too often women fail to create a clear career plan for themselves, relying instead on chance. In fact, research shows that women consistently score higher than men on every element of the behaviors associated with leadership success except for vision. Knowing this, WLF pairs each participant with a leadership coach who, in addition to providing guidance during the assessment process and throughout the year, helps her develop a career action plan. The plan includes creating a career aspiration statement, after which she works with her sponsor to think beyond the present to a myriad of opportunities within the firm.

#6: Sponsors from The Top

Most GEC members are intimately involved in the program, not only nominating women but also serving as sponsors for participants. Once the final class of approximately 40 women is determined, HR uses a structured matchmaking process to pair the GEC member sponsor who can best provide the opportunities, exposure and expertise that would most help a particular woman progress in her career.

The relationship between sponsor and participant for the most part evolves organically. “We have learned to provide structure and counsel, but in the end participants need to be invested personally to make this work. While we set the stage for sponsorship, it’s really on them to build trust so that the sponsor feels confident advocating for them. And at the same time, we let the sponsors know that we want them to provide guidance, but in the context of mutually established goals,” said Helander.

About midway through the year, GEC sponsors come together to discuss the strengths and development opportunities of the women they are sponsoring. “It is a powerful discussion because the GEC members gain visibility into this bench of leaders and can make connections to roles and opportunities that support both the firm and the development of the program participants. There’s a great sense of responsibility and pride among the sponsors in seeing these women succeed,” added Helander. An example is Ken Wilson, Vice Chairman, who has sponsored 11 women and is very proud that he continues to stay in contact with them to serve as a champion and sounding board.

#7: Build Community

Building a community of women around the globe and across functions is a key component of WLF. Participants come together throughout the year, both virtually and in-person, to receive training on a variety of topics like executive presence and negotiations. They are also involved in peer learning groups (with approximately five women) to work together on specific assignments and to serve as sounding boards for one another. In addition, each year both the current class and alumnae gather for a full day of conversation and skill-building, helping to further reinforce the community.

#8: Ensure a Continual Feedback Loop with Managers

Managers of all those participating in the program are thoroughly briefed on the project and continually kept in the loop. At the kick-off meeting, they are instructed on what the research shows, where the gaps are and why the program was designed the way it was. They participate in the 360 degree assessment, and then meet with their employee and her sponsor to help create and implement the action plan. Participants are encouraged to use their managers throughout the program to get suggestions, feedback and overall support in both creating and implementing their career action plans.

#9: Get the Guys Involved

The problem with involving men in diversity and inclusion initiatives — which is absolutely paramount — isn’t so much getting them to the table as it is making them feel comfortable once they are there. “When I first brought the concept of sponsorship to the GEC, I quickly sensed that the members were at different levels of comfort with the topic and knowledge of how to move forward. Everyone had questions on how to best structure our efforts so it would become more than just another program — we wanted to have real impact on the careers of women at BlackRock. But once they started, the sponsors became invested in the process and it was a no-brainer. We learned to trust each other over time and were able to speak very frankly with one another about all aspects of the agenda, which was critical for success. The sponsors not only saw first-hand how much the women in the program valued their personal involvement, but they gained greater insight and appreciation for the challenges faced by up-and-coming leaders,” said Helander. (Note: BlackRock recently rolled out unconscious bias training across the firm for all managers globally. The training provides managers with awareness of the impact of bias and equips them with tools and strategies to mitigate the impact.)

#10: Pay It Forward

Believing that participants stand on the shoulders of the women that came before them, participants make sure to sponsor, develop and champion other leaders in the future whether men, women or those from diverse populations. In the closing session, participants articulate pay-it-forward commitments in front of GEC members, which in itself makes an extremely strong and powerful statement. To date, WLF graduates have been responsible for a number of additional initiatives, one of which was a sponsorship component as part of the Associates program in the London office.

The truth is there are no quick or easy answers to changing the frustratingly slow pace of advancement of women in the workplace. We need to address the cluster of dynamics negatively impacting women in terms of work life balance, work environment and career development. We need leaders who are willing to lead this change.

BlackRock has made such a commitment. They’ve invested significant money, resources and top management to the creation of development programs that are strategic, sustained and measurable, and which are giving women the very best chance of succeeding.

The days of organizations laying claim to inclusivity with one–off trainings or networking cocktail parties — fine for specific purposes, but merely window dressing for changing a culture and advancing women into the highest ranks — have got to come to an end. Why waste everyone’s time and money when there is so much to do — and we have examples like BlackRock that show us how.

Peggy Klaus, an executive coach and leader of corporate training programs, is the author of “Brag!” and “The Hard Truth About Soft Skills.” For more information, visit www.peggyklaus.com