Ask any talent management executive at a major company what tops his or her list of concerns and you’ll likely hear this: Not enough women are advancing to the highest ranks. (Still!) To remedy this, many companies now offer an impressive array of programs designed to help women build the skills and connections they need to grow and get promoted—from mentoring and career coaching to leadership training and affinity groups.
If you’re lucky enough to work at one of these progressive companies, the choices may seem endless—maybe too much of a good thing. You can’t be everywhere at once and still get your job done. To help, we’ve vetted each of the most common options to help you choose which will work best for you now and in the future. And say you don’t work for a forward-looking operation like those on the NAFE Top Companies for Executive Women list? Well, we’ve got some DIY suggestions for you, too, to help you build your career and increase your effectiveness at work.
How it works: You are paired with a more senior executive (either formally or informally) to receive professional and/or personal advice. Also effective are mentoring circles, peer-to-peer mentoring and reverse mentoring.
It’s best for: Everyone, including the CEO.
A mentor may last a month or a lifetime. In fact, the more mentors, the better! Just make sure your mentor knows more than you about something you need to learn, such as how things really get done at your company, how to deal with a difficult boss, tips on making presentations or even how to put the latest technologies to work for you. “What’s exciting about a mentor relationship is that you start talking about development plans, then you’re discussing strategies and what risks to take,” says Michele Byrd, 40, Kraft Foods’ customer manager for Walmart. “You establish trust, and eventually, you’re talking about your family.” Michele, mother of Marshall, 8, confides that her mentor helped her through both personal and professional challenges this year. “[My mentor] helped me see things from a broader position,” she says. “Now I’m more collaborative and communicative.”
Do it yourself: Formal mentoring programs are great, but don’t wait for a mentor to come to you. Reach out to someone you admire and offer to buy her coffee. Keep your meeting short, and focus on the professional until you see how the relationship grows.
How it works: You meet one-on-one with an expert or advisor to reflect on your options and aspirations.
It’s best for: When you’re starting out, considering a change or just dreaming.
Career counseling offers time to reflect about what you’re aiming for with someone who has the proper context and perspective to help. In these sessions, you can talk about new directions you might try—you might even write a five-year plan (which you can always revise). Abbe Serphos, 43, plotted her road map for personal success at the Be Extraordinary program offered at the New York Times Company. Her counselors helped her analyze her goals “through the different lenses of my career side and my home side,” Abbe says. “I have a family I adore and a career I love. I clarified that they’re all different pieces of me, and that I bring my whole self to each thing.” The course prepared her for the experience of moving up the corporate ladder to her current position as executive director of corporate communications while still focusing on her two growing kids, a 7-year old boy and a 2½-year-old girl.
Do it yourself: If your company doesn’t provide career counseling, this might be something to consider investing in; sessions start at about $200. Career coaches abound and can help you focus on what lights you up or gain perspective on new directions. Ask your human resources department for recommendations.
How it works: A person with significant influence on decision-making at your organization advocates for your advancement.
It’s best for: Middle and senior managers and executives at all levels.
Many experts now call sponsorship the missing link for women’s success. You need a sponsor who’ll talk about you in talent reviews and position you for your next promotion. “Men have had that for years,” explains Jennifer Christie, chief diversity officer at American Express, where a two-year program called The Sponsor Effect is creating a comfort level for male executives sponsoring women. Elizabeth Rutledge, 50, EVP, Global Network Marketing and Information at American Express, and mom to Sarah, 16, reports that a sponsor helped her transition to marketing from the consumer card business. “Sponsors make things happen for you,” she says, noting how her boss and another executive who knew her work helped her land a big promotion to manager from individual contributor. “My sponsors grew from mentors, projects and introductions because I wanted them and built the relationships.”
Do it yourself: You likely already have sponsors without knowing it. Ask your mentors if they’ll introduce you around; talk to your boss or boss’s boss about recommending you. Get to know as many senior leaders as possible so they get to know your work.
How it works: Also known as employee resource groups, or ERGs, these groups provide support, training, leadership opportunities and networking opportunities.
It’s best for: Everyone.
At Walmart, the Women’s Resource Council now has some 2,200 female members. Chaired by Mandy McDonald, 30, mom to Anna, 3, the group has had a direct impact not only on the employee experience at the retail giant but on its business as well. “We know what our eighty-percent female customers want,” says Mandy, who notes that the council offered user insights to the marketing team for its redesign of Walmart’s baby and wedding registries. Next up? Getting more lower-level women to participate in the council, because, says Mandy, “our best ideas come from hourly associates, and we’re only beginning to get them involved.”
Do it yourself: No affinity group at your company? Most start at the grassroots level, so consider getting some women together and building your own with help from the National Association for Female Executives (nafe.com) or online networking organizations such as LinkedIn.
How it works: You attend on- or off-site courses of varying lengths, often in groups, to improve strategic thinking, influencing, decision-making and financial acumen.
It’s best for: Five-plus years into your career.
Many companies will pay for employees to attend off-site sessions, like the Smith-Tuck Global Leaders Program to which Johnson & Johnson sent Aileen Stockburger in 2010. “This was like an MBA-refresher with an international spin, focusing on the global economy and cultural awareness,” says Aileen, 48. A busy mother of three—Christina, 18, Daniel, 15, and Allie, 9—Aileen says the session gave her some rare time for herself and a week to focus on learning. “Usually, we put that on the back burner,” she says. Now VP, Worldwide Business Development for the DePuy Companies of Johnson & Johnson, Aileen recommends that you ask your boss for training, as she did 15 years ago when she wanted to leave her job in finance. Back then, the company sent her to a different program at the Center for Creative Leadership, where she received 360-degree feedback and a personality assessment. Her big aha moment? “They told me I bulldozed over people,” says Aileen. “Learning to say, ‘Hey, Mike, tell me your thoughts,’ has made me a better performer. You don’t realize these things until someone points them out.”
Do it yourself: Wrestling with a career decision or thinking you might need to expand your skills? Consider investing in an outside course yourself, even if your company won’t. The Smith-Tuck and Center for Creative Leadership programs are both open to individuals, though they’re pretty pricey (as much as $10,000 for a week); many universities offer more affordable management courses.
How it works: You meet with an expert in individual or group sessions to develop such skills as communication, team building, conflict management, etc.
It’s best for: Two or three years (or more) into your career, if you want to be a great manager.
Single mom Addy Cruz, 37, had kept her nose to the grindstone of daily duties for nine years as administrative assistant and senior administrative assistant in health and wellness at Prudential Financial when one day in 2010 her manager surprised her with the suggestion of a coaching program. “I didn’t know I needed this,” she says, “but now I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner!” Prudential paired Addy with an executive who helped assess her skills and strengths. “When he told me how good I was, based on my work, he made me more confident,” she says. “I never saw myself at a higher level until he told me I was right up there.” After the program, Addy landed a promotion to health and wellness administrative specialist, and her coach evolved into a mentor.
Do it yourself: Is it time to start thinking like an executive? You can hire your own coaches to help you fill in skill gaps: Look for a public speaking coach, or find one who can help you develop your executive presence. Your human resources department might be able to refer you to reliable professionals, or you can ask other people in your networks for recommendations.
How it works: Organizations identify women with potential to excel in top jobs, in order to train them and involve them in stretch assignments.
It’s best for: Anyone who wants to advance, particularly to high-profile executive positions.
Once mysterious, the naming and training of high-potentials is now an accessible process at companies like IBM, whose Business and Technical Leadership program finds talented women early and sets them up for development opportunities. Lisa Hopkins, 42, got on such a list by letting her accomplishments be known: “Make sure your direct-line manager understands your goals,” she says. Her manager put in her name as a high-potential, which in 2011 led to a job she loves as chief technology officer for IBM Sustainable Cities in Boulder, CO, where she develops efficient energy and water management systems. Says this mother of two girls, Hannah, 8, and Ellie, 5, “We’re finding sustainability solutions that will serve as catalysts in other cities around the globe.”
Do it yourself: Passionate about something? Have great ideas? Every company is looking for high-potentials, formally or informally. Fortune favors the brave, so let your boss and other higher-ups know you’re keen to move ahead—and fast!
How it works: You move through different functions, including “line” jobs (profit-and-loss positions responsible for bringing in profits, like sales or operations) and “staff” jobs (support functions, like human resources, legal, finance and communications).
It’s best for: Anyone who needs to broaden skill sets and knowledge of a company’s operations. This can help you either define your ideal career path or make yourself a more attractive candidate for the organization’s big-picture positions.
Men hold more than 80 percent of profit-and-loss positions at America’s companies, but profits are up where women run things, like at General Mills, where they run more than half of the major divisions. Ann Simonds, 48, has had the opportunity to run half a dozen brands, rotating through divisions ranging from Cheerios to Yoplait. To catch the talent, each year, division presidents review all team members with the chief operating officer and human resources vice president to flag great people and craft rotations into next positions. Ann recently remarried and took a month’s leave to blend two families: her 11-year old twin daughters and three stepsons, ages 21, 19, and 15. Now president of Pillsbury USA, Ann serves as a powerful role model for other working moms.
Do it yourself: Tell your boss you want to diversify your experience to understand how your organization works. Profit-and-loss positions are lots of fun: You run a business, decide what products you offer—and get yourself closer to the corner office.
Dr. Betty Spence is president of the National Association for Female Executives and author of Be Your Own Mentor.