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Gender diversity in leadership succession: Preparing for the future

North American research, July 2013

High potentials in the pipeline: Leaders pay it forwardBest practice organisations recognise that succession planning is an opportunity to reflect upon both employee performance and talent development, and is critical to organisational success. Clearly, building a strong pipeline of talent enables the nomination and selection strong leaders. Nevertheless much research has demonstrated that the talent pipeline is leaky, and, in particular, more likely to retain men, and to leak women and minorities. Understanding the subtle biases which influence succession decisions is key to maintaining the pipeline, and recent research by Professors Virick (College of Business, San Jose) and Greer (Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University) offers new insights which neatly side-step the discussion about quotas. Turns out that it is only high performers who nominate female successors when the organisational climate is perceived as not particularly supportive of diversity. This outcome signals the supervisor’s power within an organisation: their latitude to make decisions, their level of peer support and immunity to backlash.   Not only are low performers much less likely to have built a pipeline of diverse candidates from which to select, they are much less likely to take a risk on nominating a woman as a successor. This first key insight has the capacity to turn the tables, meaning that the development and nomination of women can speak more loudly about the performance of supervisors than candidates themselves. A second key insight cements the importance of this study, namely that even low performers will nominate women as successors if they perceive the climate is supportive of diversity. This second finding points the finger at the importance of organisations focussing on practices that support the identification and development of diverse talent through training, networking opportunities, clearly defined career paths, opportunities for cross-functional experience and mentoring. Even low performing supervisors will support the nomination of diverse candidates in a high wind.


The research aimed to explore and unravel how gender differences play out in the context of succession planning within a company. In particular the researchers tested a range of hypotheses including whether: (i) a supervisor’s own sex influenced the nomination of their successor (i.e. women nominating women), (ii) the perceived climate of support for diversity was influential, and (iii) the supervisor’s own status as a high or low performer influenced the nomination of a female successor.


Data for the study was obtained from a “diversity” survey completed by 228 executives and managers from the North American operations of a technology company (representing a response rate of 36%). The sample demographics were broadly similar to the company’s population, albeit that the survey respondents were slightly younger (42.4 years old) compared to the population (44.1 years old) and women were more represented (29% compared with 13.5%). Of the 228 respondents, 62 indicated they were directly involved in succession planning (67.2% were men and 29.3% were women) with 58 respondents nominating an immediate successor (ready now) and 42 nominating a planned successor (ready in 1-2 years), leading to a total “successor” group of 100.  Respondents answered questions about the performance of the successors, perceived organisational support for diversity, and sex (supervisors’ and successors’).


In essence the study found that women overall, are more likely to be nominated as successors when supervisors perceive a favourable diversity climate for women. This overall finding belies important differences in behaviours when an organisation (or parts thereof) is not perceived to support diversity. In these conditions, high performers will have developed a pipeline of talent from which to select the best, and are more likely to take a risk by nominating a female successor, however the likelihood that a low performing supervisor will nominate a women is zero.

  1. Women are more likely to be nominated as successors when supervisors perceive the diversity climate for women as being favourable: meaning that creating a favourable diversity climate is critical for succession, both in terms of the development of talent and also selection
  2. There was no relationship between supervisor’s sex and nomination of female successors: meaning that women are not more likely to nominate a female successor just because she is female
  3. Higher performing supervisors are more likely to nominate women for succession and, when the diversity climate for women is perceived as unfavourable, low performing managers tend not to nominate any women: meaning that the performance of supervisors themselves makes a difference to succession decisions, with the primary suggestion being that better-performing supervisors are more likely to perceive that talent can be upgraded through inclusiveness and that organisational performance can be improved through diversity
  4. The combination of a supervisor’s performance and diversity climate is important for the succession of women: when perceptions of the diversity climate for women are less favourable, high performing managers are more likely to nominate women, whereas low performing managers may only nominate women when they perceive the climate to be conducive to the advancement of women.


The findings highlight the need for companies to establish, apply and promote a set of of practices and coherent systems for the management of diversity, including training, networking opportunities, access to cross-functional opportunities and mentoring. The resulting “favourable diversity climate” perceived by employees and managers alike is related to the perceived “suitability” of the working environment for the advancement of women, and subsequently the opening of doors for women moving up the corporate ladder.

The findings also suggest that high performing mangers have a broader perspective of gender diversity and its instrumentality for performance – that is, they “get” the relationship between diversity and business performance. Conversely, lower performing incumbents only nominate women when the personal risk is perceived as low, suggesting that they do not recognise or value the benefits of diversity, either organisationally or personally. Their failure to consistently develop and support women directly contributes to women’s under-representation at senior levels.

The researchers highlight previous studies which point to the critical role of transparency in, and accountability for, succession planning. Their study adds to this base by implicitly suggesting that the nomination of female successors can be used to evaluate whether the organisation’s climate is perceived to be supportive of diversity and whether a supervisor is a high performer, paving the way for a new conversation with leaders about the signals of high performance.

To read the full article, see Virick, M. & Greeg, C. (2012) “Gender diversity in leadership succession: Preparing for the future” Human Resource Management, Vol. 51, No. 4, pp 575 – 600.


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