Not all leadership opportunities are created equal.

Women get fewer of the high-visibility, mission-critical roles and international experiences—the so-called “hot jobs”—that are key to getting ahead at global companies.

According to a report from Catalyst, the leading nonprofit organization expanding opportunities for women in business, unequal access to those roles may be an underlying cause of the persistent gender gap at senior levels.

Training programs alone won’t fully develop the next generation of leaders, nor are such programs likely to close the gender gap. Research shows that on-the-job experience leads to advancement more quickly than training—and to get that experience often means moving across business areas or even disciplines.

Two women who know exactly how it’s done are Shan Cooper from Lockheed Martin and Donna McPherson from Kimberly-Clark—companies that are receiving this year’s Catalyst Award, which honors innovative initiatives that expand opportunities for women and business. Their personal stories offer a wealth of advice to anyone looking to take on bigger roles.

Move Out of Your Comfort Zone

Shan Cooper

Shan Cooper

Today, as a vice president of the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company and general manager of the company’s 6,300-person Marietta, Georgia, facility, Shan Cooper oversees operations for military aircraft programs like the C-130J Super Hercules and P-3 Orion. She is also responsible for subassembly sites in Meridian, Mississippi, and Clarksburg, West Virginia, and serves as the company’s vice president of business ethics.

Several years ago, Cooper took the leap from human resources to an operational role, gaining on-the-job experience through an unexpected assignment—leading the operation while her facility’s manager was on extended medical lead.

“I have to tell you, at first, I was panic stricken,” said Cooper. “But I felt that if the company believed I could do it, I would give it my all. My manager and I had two weeks together before he left; for the next six months, I worked in the day and took things home at night. I took to the floor to learn, did a lot of one-on-one training, and was open and honest with the people I worked with. The most challenging part of the transition was the technical aspect of the job, but my team had to have the confidence to know that I understood their world…understood operations from their point of view. That was my goal.”

When the plant manager returned six months later, Cooper kept many of her responsibilities. Her experience—and her courage in taking on the role short term—positioned her to step into the job permanently when he retired. She assumed her current role in 2011.

Identify Skills Needed to Advance

Donna McPherson

Donna McPherson

Donna McPherson is currently the vice president of Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP), Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA). She’s been with KCP for 17 years, and has a strong cross-functional background in sales, marketing, and product supply. She moved to the UK on an expat assignment in 2010 and has held several critical roles in EMEA, including SBU (strategic business unit) director for Hand Hygiene & Tissue, as well as director of sales. Prior to her assignment in EMEA, Donna was the mill manager in San Antonio, Texas, where she developed and led strategy for the Wet Wiping and Skincare business. She considers this one of her most pivotal roles.

“I was part of a pilot mentoring program within our business line, and serving as senior category manager, when I had the good fortune of working with a senior male leader whose insights helped me prepare to compete for bigger roles,” says McPherson. “He told me I was known for my execution and getting things done, but I had never led leaders or driven strategy. Developmentally, it was a pivotal conversation. Because of it, I went after that role and gained the experience I needed.

“A lot of your career development is owned. You have to be willing to do something that scares you a little, or take on lateral roles that can broaden your experience base. But it’s also important to have trusted individuals—advocates, team leaders, and sponsors—who can give you genuine feedback on how you are perceived and talk with you about career goals, instead of just giving you a performance review.”

Use Every Available Resource

Both Kimberly-Clark and Lockheed Martin have award-winning initiatives that help women develop their strengths, identify experiential deficiencies, and connect with mentors and advocates who can help them rise through the ranks.

Lockheed Martin’s U.S.-based initiative, Women Accelerating Tomorrow, comprises a variety of programs, processes, and tools to support women’s advancement, and is part of a broad strategic effort to attract, develop, and retain diverse talent in their highly technical and engineering-focused industry. One of the more unique components of this initiative is directed toward white males. According to Kimberly Admire, vice president of culture, diversity and equal opportunity programs for Lockheed, looking at the industry at large, this is a group critically important to the program’s success. “We determined early on that our approach had to allow all employees to see their role in creating an inclusive work environment,” says Admire. “Through workshops and training programs, such as the Effective Leadership of Inclusive Teams (ELOIT) labs and summits, we engage vice presidents and directors in the growth of talented women and lay out expectations with regard to leadership behaviors and actions.”

Kimberly-Clark’s Unleash Your Power: Strengthening the Business with Women Leaders is a global initiative developed to increase women’s representation at all levels of the organization. Some of the specific goals of the program include hiring and promoting more women into critical roles globally, strengthening the pipeline of women, and nurturing regional and business action plans to accelerate the recruitment, development, and retention of women.

According to Sue Dodsworth, global diversity officer and vice president of executive development at Kimberly-Clark, an overarching framework for the program has been implemented across all global locations and operating businesses. “It would be a big mistake to believe our North American perspective on developing talent would be the same around the world,” she said. “So we have provided local leaders with tools to customize the initiative to meet regional and cultural needs. Leadership style has many cultural nuances, and different areas have different needs. For example, operations in China and Malaysia include a strong focus on retention because attrition is a major concern there.”

These programs have had measurable results. For example, since 2009, women’s representation in director+ roles at Kimberly-Clark has increased globally from 19 percent to 26 percent; internal promotions of women to director+ jobs have increased significantly, from 19 percent to 44 percent.

Winners of the Catalyst Award

In April, Catalyst recognized Kimberly-Clark and Lockheed Martin for their initiatives with the 2014 Catalyst Award. The award recognizes innovative organizational initiatives that address the recruitment, development, and advancement of all women, including diverse women.

“Both initiatives have diversity woven into their fabric,” said Laura Sabattini, PhD, senior director of research, and chair of the Catalyst Award Evaluation Committee. “While they represent two different industries and two different types of programs, both were able to integrate these strategies into their cultures, use them to redefine expectations and actions, and change the way things are done.

“It makes these companies innovative models for change.”

To learn more about these initiatives, visit