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The Influencers

Not Only is There a Glass Ceiling, Women Are Also Slow Out of the Gate

INFLUENCER: Senior leaders need to take accountability for their protégées, writes Juniper Park\TBWA CEO Jill Nykoliation

Not Only is There a Glass Ceiling, Women Are Also Slow Out of the Gate

Headlines focus on the shortage of female CEOs, and numerous companies are developing programs to address that. Good. They should. But it’s not enough. While it’s true that women have a harder time reaching the top, the root issue seems to be that too many of us flounder right out of the gate. 

I recently had the privilege of being invited to participate in a CEO work session at the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society, an input session for the upcoming G7 meeting on the topic of inclusive progress. One slide in a McKinsey presentation took my breath away – the biggest fallout in the advancement of women happens between entry-level and manager. In the US, 48% of the entry-level workforce is female, but falls to 37% at the manager level. It falls to 22% in the EU, and 39% in Canada. At the very start of their careers, women seem to stutter. 

If we want more women in senior leadership roles, we must double down on helping them thrive from the beginning. And like most things in life, the responsibility for this falls on both sides. 

For us senior folks, we need to take accountability for our protégées. It’s more than teaching and guiding. (After all, protégée does mean ‘protected’.) We must protect our rising stars. 


Here’s how I do it:

Explain things. As the adage goes, context is everything. When we help people see the bigger picture, we help them see beyond the specific tasks of their job, and their sense of purpose grows. This is especially helpful in the earlier years. Why is their role important in the overall system? What are the dependencies that stem from their job? It’s as simple as pausing to say, “This stage of the process matters because….” 

Catch people doing things right. What gets rewarded gets done. And well-earned praise is a great reward. At the end of each meeting, take a moment to speak one-on-one with individuals who’ve just done a great job. You will feel their confidence swell. 

Help women find their voice. In our industry, the stakes are high, deadlines are tight, and conversations move at the speed of light. This can be intimidating for a junior. The most powerful way to address this is to deliberately ask, “What do you think?” This single sentence says “I see you, and I value you”.

Help people up. Consciously help people rise. Champion them. If you were asked to name three people whose career trajectory you helped, could you answer that question? For me, this is one of my biggest sources of pride. 

But that’s only half the story. The responsibility of being mentored must be matched by the mentee. First and foremost, you must have a singular commitment to growth. Personal development is a personal responsibility. It isn’t your boss’s –  it’s yours.  

My advice: approach your job like you’re taking a virtual degree. 

Choose your professors – Which leaders are smart, future leaning, and generous? Make them your mentors. Don’t ask them. Just chose them. Get close to them, and study them – their thinking, their style, how they lead. Be present in their presence. Soak it all in. While I was at Kraft Foods, I chose to study then-CEO, Irene Rosenfeld (later CEO of Mondelez).

Sign up for their classes – Raise your hand for assignments they are attached to. During my tenure at Kraft, I raised my hand to co-lead its CRM initiative, one of Irene Rosenfeld’s priority initiatives. Those five years under her sponsorship rocketed my personal development, and fundamentally changed the trajectory of my career. 

Create your own reading list – Unlike school, no one is giving you a reading list. But it is just as crucial. Curate your own. Ask people you admire and respect at work what they are reading. Update it every six months.

Study and prepare – One of my bosses did a post mortem after every single presentation. Good or bad outcome, he would review the meeting, and our role in it. Our presentation style, our ability to read the room, how we fielded questions. He once said, “Your presentation style is excellent – except your first two minutes, they always suck.” He was right. And all these years later, I deliberately map out my first two minutes, and remain grateful for his critique. 

Ask questions – The best classes at school were the ones where rich conversations were had.  Quest ions seeking clarity spark deeper learning. Be curious. Approach each new role, each person you interact with, each stage of the advertising process with curiosity and you will see the intricate interdependencies in how strategies and insights become ideas that can shift culture. Your learning will soar. 

While I have always found tremendous fulfilment in mentoring, those McKinsey numbers quoted earlier make me even more determined to make it a priority. But don’t wait for us senior folk to act. Pick your mentors, and start studying them. By approaching it from both ends, we will make a difference. 


Jill Nykoliation is CEO Juniper Park\TBWA

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