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This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

You only need to take a quick scan of the C-suites and boardrooms of corporate Canada to come to the conclusion that the meritocracy system is broken at the vast majority of companies today. The fact that 50 per cent of the population is largely absent from the leadership roles that shape our economy is a talent deficit that smart leaders will recognize is a problem worth fixing.

Women have represented half of university graduates over the past 30 years (and more than 60 per cent today), yet only a handful have risen into senior leadership roles in corporate Canada. For those who assume that all those graduates are now at home with children: women represent 47 per cent of the work force, and 73 per cent of mothers with children under 16 are working. In fact, women represent half of business professionals working in Canada and close to 40 per cent of middle management roles.

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This raises two questions for leaders today: 1) Why have half the university graduates this country produces decade after decade been stagnating in supporting positions and not assuming top leadership roles? 2) Should we care?

To start with the latter question first, smart leaders should care about moving talented women into senior leadership roles along with talented men, because it builds more successful companies. There is a large body of research today that demonstrates that companies with more women on boards and in senior management are more profitable and have higher shareholder returns. Add to that the facts that women make 80 per cent of the purchasing decisions and control close to 40 per cent of investable assets in Canada and it seems clear that a pool of talented women in leadership is just good for business.

The challenge facing leaders today is how to fix the meritocracy so that it allows the best and the brightest – women and men – to rise to leadership roles. Here are three tips to ensure the best talent rises to the top in your organization:

Open up the dialogue on how unconscious bias affects the identification of talent

The first step for any organization is to recognize that we all bring biases to the table, which affect the way we assess skills and qualifications, and often those biases cause us to gravitate towards the familiar. Education and training on awareness of unconscious bias and its implications for hiring and talent management should be mandatory for all managers and leaders. A real meritocracy has to take into consideration that we all tend to choose in our own likeness, and while that might make us comfortable, it gets in the way of identifying and developing a diverse talent pool.

Formalize talent management and hold managers accountable for its development

Companies need to implement more formal and robust talent management systems. Most organizations have traditionally relied on informal approaches, or in many cases the "sink or swim" school of management. In these environments, those individuals who manage to develop informal mentoring and coaching relationships get the right assignments, experience, and exposure to senior management. Women typically do not develop these informal relationships as easily and as a result are less likely to be funnelled into the leadership pipeline. To develop a diverse pool of leadership talent, more formal and transparent talent management systems are required. Organizations must ensure recruiting and promotion teams are diverse, the roster of up-and-coming talent includes women and men, and that those people are receiving the same access to highly-coveted projects and to senior management.

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Sponsorship is critical on the path to leadership

Finally, any successful leader will tell you that they had sponsors throughout their career who gave them visibility with senior leaders, connected them to career opportunities and opened doors to help get them into progressively senior roles. Those sponsorship relationships are key on the path to leadership and are currently a significant barrier to women advancing into the C-suites and boardrooms of corporate Canada. While sponsorship relationships develop informally for men, this has not been the case for women. Formal sponsorship programs are being implemented by many companies today to help develop those relationships and to ensure that both men and women are getting the access and support they need.

Fixing the leak in your talent pipeline is an investment well worth making. Not only will it strengthen the management skills of the talent you have today, it puts your A-team into the leadership suite and sets your organization up for success tomorrow. There is an immense opportunity today for those willing to invest in tapping into 100 per cent of the talent pool for leadership in Canada.

Jennifer Reynolds is president and chief executive officer of Women in Capital Markets (@WCMCanada).

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