Harvard Business Review — 05/11/2018 at 14:00

How Lilly Is Getting More Women into Leadership Positions

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Much has been written about the troubling lack of women in leadership roles generally and in health care in particular. At Lilly, we have tackled this problem head-on. Our approaches, we think, can be helpful to other companies working to address this imbalance.

In 2015, we conducted a workforce analysis that revealed a significant shortage of women in leadership at our company. Overall, our global workforce was 47%  female — and 53% of entry-level employees were women. But at higher levels, the percentage dropped off sharply, plummeting to 20% at the top. While this number was comparable to the percentage of women executives at Fortune 500 healthcare companies in 2015, it was not a number we were proud of. Companies that have gender-diverse leadership deliver better financial performance than companies that do not – so addressing the gap was not just the right thing to do; it made business sense as well.

But before we could solve the problem, we had to understand it. So we embarked on an in-depth study of our own employees, based on a proprietary, multi-faceted process we use for market research. We engaged an outside firm to conduct the study to ensure independence and anonymity.

We surveyed high-potential women and men in the U.S. and asked highly personal questions we had never asked before, recording their stories. Our objective was to better understand how the experiences of women working at Lilly differed from those of men — and more specifically, to identify and remove barriers to career growth so we could increase the representation of women in leadership.

Here are some of the lessons we learned:

Get buy-in from the outset. Our management team was invested in this undertaking from the beginning. Dave Ricks, who was then president of one of our largest business units and who became CEO in January 2017, commissioned the research and supported it throughout the process. He and other senior leaders gathered for two days with human resources and the Lilly Women’s Network, one of our employee resource groups, to brainstorm solutions to barriers uncovered in the research. This was not “just” an HR issue — it was a business issue. We went all-in.

Do your homework. Only through rigorous internal research – asking the right questions, listening to the answers and crystallizing the results – can a company expect to understand its own workforce. We started with a business problem: If women comprised nearly half of our workforce, why were we seeing such a drop-off in senior management? Leaders (mostly male) hypothesized that many women were less ambitious than men, or weren’t capable of ascending to the highest levels of leadership. Traditional engagement surveys do not go deep enough to show whether either point is actually true. Not surprisingly, the surveys showed, neither is based in reality.

Understand your research. Numbers are just numbers unless translated into insights that can be put to use. The research showed that women are just as ambitious as men and equally likely to seek growth opportunities. But many women did not feel supported or recognized for their work. High-potential women start their careers at Lilly excited to take on more responsibility, despite relatively few women role models at the top, especially for non-white women. As they advance, our data showed that some women wrestled with how to fit in and move ahead in a culture that, as with most companies, was dominated by men. They reported encountering biases (conscious and unconscious), gender stereotypes, and talent-management practices that undermined their ambitions. For example, the women reported experiences in which “relationship capital” — whom you know and trust — was an important but unspoken factor in decisions about promotions. Study results showed that Lilly women were more likely to focus on doing the work itself than on networking, and therefore sometimes missed opportunities for promotions despite strong performance.

Be an open book. Accountability is key, so we acted transparently. We held our own feet to the fire by sharing our findings with leaders and employees in 2016. Two years later, we’re seeing women becoming more vocal and more influential. I’m here at the table, they’re saying, and I want to be heard.

Commit to change. Understanding the causes of our gender imbalance was a start, but we next needed to use the findings to create interventions and culture change. For example, we initiated training and deployed instructors to help managers lead more inclusively by valuing differences, recognizing and overcoming bias, fostering a speak-up culture—and we held them accountable for results. More than 2,000 managers, senior directors and vice presidents globally have participated so far. We are revamping our talent-management processes to minimize unconscious and conscious biases in our hiring, management and promotion practices. We’ve set a goal to increase the number of women in management by four percentage points within two years, and we are close to attaining that goal.

Where we are now

Already, we’re seeing progress and are now taking the same approach with racial and ethnic minority populations in the organization. From 2016 to the end of 2017, the number of women leaders at Lilly globally rose from 38% to 41%, and the number of women who report directly to our CEO climbed from 31% to 43%. Last year, women at Lilly accounted for 61%  promotions to senior director and above in the U.S., compared to 54% in 2016. Half of the unit presidents in our pharma business are now women.

As we increase the number of women in our leadership ranks, we become better positioned to increase the diversity of our clinical trials, boost innovation, and authentically and responsibly market our medicines. We have become more deliberate, for example, about having women lead the marketing efforts for drugs that treat diseases that disproportionately affect women. The development and marketing teams for our new medicine to treat metastatic breast cancer were led by women and made up almost entirely of women, for example.

While many companies are trying to build more gender-diverse leadership teams and workforces, progress remains slow. We knew it would remain slow at Lilly, too, unless we took a different approach. So we sought to do something difficult: to understand and address our blind spots. Only then could we hope to grow our pipeline of potential women leaders.


Joy Fitzgerald is Lilly’s Chief Diversity Officer.


Read this article on Harvard Business Review


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