Janet Walkow Christine Jacobs

Ducks Pick Ducks

… Promotion Mystery Solved

Over the course of my long career I have seen many women hit the glass ceiling and they are always surprised.  They have been promoted, treated well and told that they were on the fast track.  And then, somehow and for some reason, they do not break through to the next level.

Why Women aren’t Moving Up

Not ready?  Needing more skills? I never bought into these answers.  I have often suspected that there was something mysterious going on in those high level meetings.  The women could be good enough for most positions.  But the men in charge who were making the final decisions did not promote the women. Excuses were always given, but they did not ring true.

I have long suspected that it had to do with the egos of the decision makers.  They had reached the loftiest heights through a particular combination of experience and personal skills and looked to hire someone just like them.  A clone or mini-me. This was just my cynical conjecture.

Mystery Solved

I recently heard, however, that Admiral Mike Mullen had discussed this point as he examined promotion practices in the US Navy.  In a military strategy speech at Ft Leavenworth in 2010, he is quoted as saying:

… I am struck [by the lack of variability in promotions] – so when those individuals come before a promotion board, here’s how promotion boards work:  I call it ducks picking ducks.  And if your record comes up and there are ducks in the room and you’re not a duck, you don’t get promoted.

Getting Past the Quaking

Wow!  So clearly stated!  No matter how good the record of a particular officer, if he or she came up before a promotion board and had a service background different than the members of the board, they would not get promoted.

We all have our own skill sets and ways of managing and leading groups.  And we know that success can come in many ways. But the folks managing promotions in many companies will let difference only go so far.  The ducks are looking for other ducks.

Changing the Landscape

How do we get past this?  First, by recognizing this phenomenon.  We need at least three women on all corporate Boards of Directors.  Research shows that we need at least three women on a board before they feel fully comfortable.  Clearly with fewer than three, they feel they have to pretend to be ducks. And, we need to call out the ducks for hiring from their own breed.

I do not want to be a duck.  I want to be recognized for being an effective swan or turkey or maybe that takes the metaphor too far. Birds of a feather flock together but diverse aviaries are good for the long term!

Christine Jacobs is an experienced corporate executive and a co-founder of Leading Women. Read her full bio.

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