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Serving Women Leaders at Every Level: 6 Lessons on How to Retain and Develop Women Leaders – from Kaiser Permanente and Parexel

May 22, 2023 Katharine Panessidi

The number of women in the workforce has returned to prepandemic levels—but unfortunately, women are more disengaged and less satisfied with their roles and their companies. And with high-performing talent in great demand, retention remains a major challenge for organizations.

How can organizations engage women leaders at the highest levels and retain them?

We recently sat down with two leading companies—Kaiser Permanente and Parexel—who have implemented unique employee development experiences to change the game for their women leaders and create successful outcomes on their promotion and retention rates.

During this dynamic conversation, Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, a SHRM company, interviewed Veronica (Roni) Jacknow, Senior Director, Office of Talent Development at Kaiser Permanente, and Aida Sabo, Senior Vice President & Global Head, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Parexel.

In partnership with Linkage, Kaiser Permanente and Parexel have driven tremendous impact for their women leaders and their organizations through focused leadership development initiatives.

First, they began with the data to guide their initiative in the right direction. “Start the conversation grounded in the data,” said Jacknow. “The data will help you articulate the problem you are trying to solve.” That truth was also evident to Sabo, who added: “We looked at the data and it showed us where the challenges were, and that’s where we made our investment.”

Read on for a few of my favorite moments from the conversation; and then tune in to the full, hourlong recorded session on-demand to get a behind-the-scenes look at two unique leadership development experiences created for high-potential women leaders. You’ll also discover the critical lessons learned along the way to achieve success—and hear testimonials from participants on their experience in women’s development programs.

Here Are 6 Key Lessons on Advancing Women Leaders:

#1: Women leaders have the potential to thrive. They don’t need to be “fixed.”

Women leaders face hurdles to advancement as they traverse their leadership journey, and it is important for organizations to acknowledge those hurdles. And, it’s just as important for organizations to acknowledge that women leaders don’t need to be “fixed” to empower them on their journeys.

“The women who participate in our program have all the skills they need to continue to advance in their careers,” said Jacknow. “I think what our program does is shine a bright spotlight on their strengths, their superpowers, their unique talents, and it gives them permission to be their true authentic self and bring more of that to Kaiser Permanente and to the world each day.”

When women leaders experience development that is focused on their unique needs and skills, incredible outcomes happen. Jacknow shared that she has personally experienced leadership programs and launched and led many programs herself, but the real impact came when she tapped into the power of Linkage’s Advancing Women Leaders framework. “The curriculum for this program is unlike any other because it focuses on the hurdles and challenges that are unique to women,” said Jacknow. “The program reignites their career aspirations by providing them with a psychologically safe environment for them to be vulnerable and hopefully lean outside their comfort zone a bit, which we know is where all the growth happens.”

What does this development for women look like in action? Kaiser Permanente’s leadership development strategy includes sending 80+ high-potential women leaders annually to the Women in Leadership Institute™ (WIL), which is a four-day learning conference that equips women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace. The Institute is built on 20+ years of research and firsthand experience empowering organizations to develop women leaders.

“The Women in Leadership Institute provides a lot of tools and resources to support our women in quieting their inner critic while building their confidence to glide over those hurdles and challenges that are getting in their way,” said Jacknow.

#2: Focused investment in women can make a real difference in gender equity at your organization.

 A Linkage survey found that 67% of women who experience individual development say they are more likely to stay with their company. In a tight labor market, the retention of high-potential and high-value talent is more important than ever, and organizations must refocus their commitment to accelerating the development of their women leaders.

We were intrigued by this data, so we dug deeper with our partner organizations to uncover what they were experiencing. What did their organizational data tell us about women leaders and their retention over time?

Parexel, which has partnered with Linkage for 13+ years, is driving sustained momentum for their women leaders and achieving clear positive outcomes for the broader organization. “This program was created because in the past, we did not see women moving up the leadership ranks at the same rates as men,” said Sabo. “That has changed since the launch of this program, and since the launch of our diversity efforts.”

Through their partnership with Linkage, Parexel has achieved the following results:

  • 41.6% of VPs+ across the organization are women (up 14.3% since 2014)
  • Participants are more likely to recommend Parexel as a great place to work for women (NPS: 24 vs Linkage norm 6)

Sabo pointed out that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when women continued to leave the workforce in droves, Parexel was able to stabilize and return to a retention rate that is equal across women and men at the organization.

“We’re really excited because the data speaks for itself,” said Sabo. “It is so obvious that there’s been a change in the company. I’m really proud of that. We could not have done it without partnering with Linkage.”

Kaiser Permanente is also seeing tremendous impact from their strategy to develop and advance women leaders. The program raised the number of women executives across the organization to 51.6%, and the retention rate for women leaders continues to grow. “We are not seeing an increase in attrition for women,” said Jacknow. “In fact, our attrition rates for men and women are comparable.”

At a time when the data shows that women leaders are more likely to leave their organization, Jacknow reports that Kaiser Permanente has not experienced this. “We’ve actually seen the opposite effect,” said Jacknow. “Women at Kaiser Permanente scored higher than men on intent to stay.”

Jacknow also pointed to the importance of measuring other leading indicators, and monitoring for an increase in areas like burnout and addressing it as a workplace priority. “Not surprisingly, women are experiencing higher levels of burnout when compared to men,” said Jacknow. “Given that women make up 70% of our workforce and nearly 70% of our managers, that certainly requires focused attention.”

#3: Be intentional about including women of color in development initiatives.

As organizations strive to increase the retention numbers of their women leaders, it is important to understand the effect of race on individual advancement. Linkage’s latest research reveals that managers rate Black women lower than White women, making it necessary for organizations to find ways to identify talent for development opportunities outside of the traditional, manager-led nomination efforts.

At Kaiser Permanente, a majority of leadership program graduates are women of color, and Parexel is intentional about ensuring that at least 40% of participants in their women’s leadership program are women of color. The organization points to the use of a self-nomination process as integral to their strategy to make development available to women of color, and it has achieved big outcomes, with 20% of their VPs+ in the US identifying as non-White, up from 8.6% in 2014.

#4: Gain allyship early on by actively engaging male executives in the leadership development strategy and program.

As organizational leaders strive to make impact in their DEI and leadership development strategies to advance women leaders, they must actively engage male executives in the strategy. Men represent 70+% of senior leadership and executive positions, providing them with the great opportunity to drive deep organizational change.

Jacknow explained that building and sustaining a culture of inclusion where all executive leaders engage in this work was an important part of Kaiser Permanente’s recipe for success.

“I was not willing to launch a Women in Leadership program without involving all executives, including men,” said Jacknow. “If the gender equity issue could be solved primarily just focusing on women, we would’ve solved it many, many years ago.”

 The first phase of this work involved an inclusive leadership workshop for all executives, shared Jacknow. “We have to change the culture and ensure that is it is one of inclusion and belonging, while at the same time continuing to invest in the women in our organization.”

What does that look like in action? All the men who graduate from Kaiser Permanente’s Gender Allyship Program experience the Women in Leadership Institute (WIL), so they can gain a key understanding of the hurdles to advancement that women face. “I wanted to make sure that we did everything we could to have allyship from the very beginning,” said Jacknow. “We took them along this journey with us, and the men we engaged have brought other men along as well.”

Similarly, Parexel has a program, Men Advocating for Real Change—now called Changemakers—and ensures that men are involved as active mentors in their programs alongside women executives.

#5: Invest and be consistent.

As we continue to experience the effects of a fast-changing world, organizations which consistently invest in the advancement of women leaders reap benefits that other organizations do not. “One recommendation that I would make is don’t skip a year,” said Sabo. “Continue to invest in this and don’t stop.”

By engaging the women leaders in their workforce in thoughtful and targeted advancement efforts, Parexel and Kaiser Permanente are charting a path forward with consistent improvement over time.

“It’s very important that we invest in leadership development programs and networking opportunities and visibility, and ensure that women feel valued, respected, and supported at our company,” said Sabo. “It’s so important to invest in talent so that women feel that they have the opportunity to grow and develop at work.”

#6: Start small and grow your program. You don’t have to go it alone!

A fully formed, thoughtful and effective leadership development strategy that meets your organization’s unique needs doesn’t happen overnight. Kaiser Permanente and Parexel took a phased approach to their strategies, launching initiatives over time to drive long-term adoption and success. If you are just beginning to develop or redesign your leadership development programming, start with incremental steps.

Parexel began 13 years ago by sending an initial cohort of eight women to the Women in Leadership Institute. Now, they send 42+ women leaders from around the world to the Institute each fall. Six years ago, Kaiser Permanente started their initiative by targeting women in their finance organization. Today, they provide programming to 92+ women in two cohorts each year across finance, marketing, sales, pharmacy, legal and compliance, HR, physicians, and more!

Plus, consider the format of the programming you deliver to your women leaders. As organizations adjust to a world changed by the pandemic, many employees exist in a virtual or hybrid environment. Consider offering leaders the same quality of leadership development programing through virtual formats. Prior to the pandemic in 2020, Kaiser Permanente relied on the in-person Institute experience but has since shifted to scale their offerings virtually, resulting in a 100% participation rate from the comfort of the home or the office.


Organizations have the power to meaningfully support women leaders at a critical time, and Kaiser Permanente and Parexel are charting a path forward at the highest levels. Learn from their key practices and approaches to develop a strategy and program that will work for your organization’s goals. Discover more about the Women in Leadership Institute and the Advancing Women Leaders Signature Solution to take the next step.

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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Advancing Women Leaders

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