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Managers are what it is all about to retain women, by Telle Whitney, President and CEO, Anita Borg Institute

In our work with companies, we often work with executives who are looking to change the presence and impact of women in their organization.   However, one of the unfortunate truths is that employees often leave managers, not companies.    This is particularly true for women.  For a young women coming out of school, this is typically their first job.

In our work with companies, we often work with executives who are looking to change the presence and impact of women in their organization.   However, one of the unfortunate truths is that employees often leave managers, not companies.    This is particularly true for women.  For a young women coming out of school, this is typically their first job.  Their managers (mostly male) are often trying on their first management job, and are learning their own limitations and biases.    Many women leave without ever telling anyone else at the company how bad it is.   But, it is also true that a manager, both male and female, can make an incredible difference in retaining women.  

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For most employees’ right out of school, the most important characteristic a manager can provide is confidence, confidence that their employee can do the job.   I’ve had many mediocre managers, but the ones that stand out are the ones that went out of their way to make sure that I knew that I could do my job.    At one company I worked at, they hired a new Vice President of Engineering.    From the beginning, he made sure that I knew that he believed in the job I could do.  We spent time ensuring that the engineering department was on track, but what really mattered, and why I stayed, was his confidence in me.    

 

As another example, one of my colleagues worked at a large successful company in a technical role, and was about ready to leave.    She brought a customer focused attitude to the development team, and was constantly criticized by her manager for not following the rules, although when they followed the rules the resulting product was often overly complicated and did not meet the customer needs.  Another group within the same organization reached out to her and created a position for user centered design in their group.   She transitioned to this new group a few years ago, and has been happy ever since.    In her new role, her manager believed in her, and recognized her strengths, rather than working around them.  

 

The best managers are also looking to grow the capabilities of their staff.   In my business, there is always too much to do, and it is easy to get focused on getting the tasks at hand completed.    But an important part of a manager’s job is to understand not only what an employee is good at, but also to provide them with objectives that give them opportunities to stretch.  For example, many women are intimated by the idea of giving a presentation; it is outside of their comfort zone, especially to outside audiences.   One of my colleagues regularly asked his employees, including two women, to present to the executive staff.   Initially he would ask them to prepare a short presentation – five minutes – and would practice the presentation with his team first.   Although one of the women hated it, and would have said no given a choice, he required her to present.   Gradually over the course of a year, her resistance diminished, and finally she became more comfortable with the role.   Giving a quality presentation is a skill; skills can be developed with practice,

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Managers can make all the difference in retention of employees. Ensuring that your employees know that you have confidence in them, recognizing their strengths, and developing their skills allows them to grow and can make such a difference to your organization.