From school students to senior leaders: building the pipeline of female talent

Working Mums - Top Employer Awards 2017 at the Soho Hotel

Bank of America Merrill Lynch has a long history of supporting women’s economic empowerment and leadership, both through external partnerships and within the organisation.

Recent recognition for this work includes being cited as a leader in the annual Bloomberg Financial Services Gender-Equality Index; winning Women in Banking & Finance’s 2016 Team Diversity Award; and being honoured as Euromoney’s 2017 World’s Best Bank for Corporate Social Responsibility and their 2016 World’s Best Bank for Diversity.

To that can be added the 2017 Top Employer Award for Career Progression. It is the second time the bank has won the award.

More than half of BofAML’s global workforce is female, with six of its CEO’s direct reports and six of the 13 main Board of Director members being women or from BME backgrounds. More locally, the EMEA Executive Committee (ExCo) is 22% female.

In the UK BofAML has signed the HM Treasury Women in Finance Charter, committing to grow the number of women at senior levels. It seeks to do so at all levels, from outreach to schools through to returner programmes and senior leadership initiatives.


One of the areas where the bank has played a leading role is in supporting and recruiting returners. Its Returning Talent programme was one of the first returner programmes in the UK and is now in its eighth year, having helped over 300 people who had been out of work for 12 months or longer.

Over the years the programme has evolved – the biggest evolution is that it has expanded to Chester and Dublin in addition to London.

Neeha Khurana, international talent executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, says an important lesson learnt over the years is that it is not just targeted at mums returning from a career break. “Lots of people – both men and women – can have career breaks for many different reasons.  It was important therefore that we broadened our reach and messaging to include both women and men.”

Nevertheless, due to the fact that women still predominantly take on the main caring responsibilities, most of the programme participants are women.

The programme is divided into two parts – the first part brings together people who have taken a break for 12 months or more, together to talk about general issues about returning to work. These include forming networks and Khurana says it is very powerful for the participants to be in a room full of people who are facing similar challenges in getting back to work. The second part is more focused on those who are return ready and are sure they want to get back into financial services.

Many participants of the programme keep in touch afterwards through an alumni network which offers vital ongoing support.

BofAML aligns the timing of the programme to its recruitment cycle so that when participants finish the programme, there are likely to be more jobs available for which they are encouraged to apply. Recruiters and senior line-of-business leaders attend segments of the programme as well as senior leaders, giving participants the opportunity to network, learn about the bank’s culture and hear  about job opportunities. Managers share their views on stand-out candidates with the programme organisers.

Members of the Diversity and Inclusion Council are encouraged to talk to managers and start thinking about roles that might be available in the lead-up to the programme, returners’ CVs are shared and the returner lead on the Council, which is comprised of senior executives from across BofAML, attends the programme.

Where possible, BofAML tracks what happens to people who have participated in the second part of the programme, particularly those who get a job in the bank, whether permanent or on a contractor basis. Some go back to the same level they were at before they took their break and others choose a different area than they were in before and may start at a lower level.

Schools and universities

At the other end of the scale, BofAML does a lot of work to broaden the pool of potential future candidates to financial services through partnerships with schools and colleges. As part of its Junior Talent strategy, the bank actively attracts women from schools and universities around the country to join its female-specific insight programmes, Female Futures and Females in Finance. It hosts dinners with female leaders in the bank and provides female buddies and mentors to those joining its summer internship programme. Buddies are a recent graduate or someone who is on the graduate programme who can help them with everyday, more practical  issues like finding the canteen. Managers help the interns to spot opportunities and identify the skills they will need in order to succeed in their roles.

A Level students are offered Insight Days where they get to see close up the different types of careers offered by across the bank. “The earlier we can be out there talking to young people the better,” says Khurana. “That is when they are forming their ideas about the careers they are considering pursuing. Research from charity Education and Employers shows that they have preconceived ideas about gender from age six upwards. The aim is to produce that lightbulb moment.”

Once in a permanent job, employees have access to ongoing careers advice and development through, for example,  Career Navigator. The idea for this initiative, which has been in place for five years, came from one of the  bank’s most senior executives. It aims to understand the career aspirations of everyone in the workforce. The  initiative has been rolled out to every department and involves one to one conversations with HR’s Learning and Leadership function. It looks at employees’ previous roles, their current role, their aspirations and what is important to them, for instance, work life balance. The one to ones are typically held twice a year, but informal chats can be held in between.

Khurana says it is a good retention tool which has boosted internal promotion mobility rates and performance. “It may be that someone is not in the right role so we ask them if they have thought about other options. It’s about putting them individuals in the driving seat. It might be harder for them to do this with a line manager. It can feel more objective if it is led by HR,” she says.

Career Navigator clearly demonstrates that the bank has a vested interest in employee advancement. It also provides HR with the bigger picture of any upcoming changes and opportunities in the organisation. Since the initiative’s launch, 62% of the career conversations have been with women and there is quarterly reporting to senior leaders on how female talent in particular is progressing.

Pathways to progression

For mid-level female candidates who want to progress to the next level, there is the Pathways to Progression programme which launched in 2016. It has so far reached around 200 vice president level women, with many . potential candidates being identified through Career Navigator conversations.  The programme provides different ways for participants to think about their career.

“It’s not about “fixing women”, rather it’s about creating an empowering culture and actively engaging leaders and managers,” says Daniel South, head of Diversity and Inclusion for EMEA. The programme lasts for six months. Modules cover everything from personal values and priorities to well-being and personal branding. Managers are given coaching around how to support women better and set them up for their next role.

“We approach it from both sides. Our leaders get to understand participants’ career aspirations, how they can sponsor women better and how they can reach out to women with potential. Research tells us that managers are likely to have more men coming forward and asking about career progression. It’s important that they recognise that they may need to do things differently to encourage women by actively asking them about their career aspirations. We encourage the women to consider finding a mentor, but our main focus is on them getting sponsored – having someone to advocate for them – and encouraging them to put themselves forward for opportunities. It is based on very practical and tangible suggestions for career advancement,” says South.

For new senior employees – both new joiners and those who have been promoted internally, BofAML provides executive onboarding support. This is provided to both men and women, but for women it is offered earlier in their leadership transition. Support for both men and women  involves creating an onboarding plan which aims to help employees understand the expectations of their new role and the deliverables.

The Learning and Leadership team checks in with them regularly and suggests people with whom they could network. “We aim to get them up to speed as quickly as possible,” says South. “Having touchpoints along the way and promoting dialogue shows individuals that we are here to ensure they are set up for success. It helps retention and it helps our people to be more productive more quickly,” says South. He says that targeting women at an earlier stage of their leadership transition is helping to address the challenges all employers face with regard to creating a pipeline of senior female talent. He adds: “As a result we have had more women staying with the company and progressing to senior positions. It is making a difference.”

In addition to these initiatives, there are a number of global leadership programmes  such as the bank’s Global Women’s Conference which brings together its top 300 female leaders annually to learn about leadership advancement and advocacy.

Networks and family support

All the bank’s programmes are further supported by employee networks such as LEAD for Women (Leadership, Education, Advocacy and Development) which promotes professional interactions that help attract, develop, advance and retain female professionals at the company at all levels. The PCN (Parents and Carers Network) brings together employees with caring responsibilities and provides access to support, information and resources and influences the bank’s policies and practices in support of employees who are parents and/or carers.

The bank also offers maternity workshops and a ‘buddy’ system for anyone expecting a child, with four sessions of one-on-one maternity coaching for senior women. There are also workshops for managers with a team member taking leave. In 2017 BofAML also launched new parents workshops aimed at dads or ’second parents’. Other benefits include 20 days’ of emergency childcare and elder care leave per year and childcare vouchers. Employees are also able to buy additional annual leave each year.

With all this ongoing activity, BofAML is not sitting still on the innovation front.  Over the last year it has been putting more resources into internal mobility and there is an HR team which proactively helps employees to move roles – rotating to different businesses or locations. “We need to be adaptable to change,” says South.


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