Gaining New Perspective on Developing Future Women CEOs

Gaining New Perspective on Developing Future Women CEOs

By Jane Edison Stevenson, Vice Chairman, Board & CEO Services

You know the feeling…you’re faced with a difficult issue, and examine it exhaustively without arriving at a solution. Finally, you adopt a fresh perspective and – voilà – a resolution starts coming into focus. Sound familiar?

We experienced this epiphany at Korn Ferry during our work to create a roadmap for developing more women CEOs in the Fortune 500.  Supported by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, our just-completed research is part of the Foundation’s 100×25 initiative, which aims for at least 100 Fortune 500 women CEOs by 2015.

Instead of taking the traditional tack – focusing on barriers that impede women’s progress in their climb to the top – we decided to turn this issue upside down and analyze the success of the tiny minority of women who have actually made it to the corner office of a major company. In essence, why had they made it when so many others had not? What was the “secret sauce?”

We reached out to current and recent women CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies – bear in mind that there have been only 94 women CEOs ever in the Fortune 500 – and were thrilled with the response. Participants included 57 women CEOs, 41 of Fortune 1000 companies and 16 of large private company equivalents. Through in-depth individual interviews focused on their personal history, career, and key personality traits and drivers, and by completing Korn Ferry’s proprietary executive assessment, the women CEOs generously gave of their time, providing a view into the elements that had enabled their success.

Insights and potential paths forward bubbled to the surface as we quantified common success factors. For one thing, these women worked harder and longer to get to the top. They were four years older than male counterparts, and worked in a slightly higher number of roles, functions, companies, and industries. They were driven by achieving business results, but also by something more: a sense of purpose and their belief that their company could have a positive impact on the community, employees, and the world around them. In addition, the women CEOs had traits that set them apart, time and again, including courage, risk-taking, resilience, agility, and managing ambiguity. And they understood how to engage the power of teams.

Regrading common backgrounds, the women shared STEM and financial backgrounds that served as a springboard, enabling them to prove themselves with precise, definable outcomes that were also crucial to the success of the business. Yet, despite their evident potential, the women didn’t generally set their sights on becoming CEO; many never even considered it until a boss or mentor encouraged them. Instead, they focused on hitting business targets rather than on their personal career advancement.

While we consider all of our client work important, it has been a distinct honor and a real privilege to be intimately involved with research that has such far-reaching potential to enable needed, groundbreaking change. Companies face many novel challenges in our rapidly, ever-morphing, and increasingly competitive business environment.

Significantly, the picture that emerged from our research of women leaders included such traits and competencies as courage and the ability to successfully navigate uncertainty and ambiguity in a constantly shifting environment. This description is, in effect, also a profile of the modern leader, well aligned with key, new challenges that today’s boards are finding in short supply, but high demand.

Moving forward from the research, we are currently building out action steps, including working with a group of Beta companies to apply what we learned to design specific programs geared to cultivating more women leaders. As success builds on success, we hope this initiative will grow exponentially – like pebbles in a pond, each generating its own ripple of change – until critical mass is undeniable.

Longer-term, we envision a world where women – including my own daughter – are developed and encouraged to reach for their highest career aspirations, and where companies can fully utilize this crucial resource. After all, women comprise half of the world’s talent base, and neglecting to leverage that talent is akin to hopping to the finish line on one foot when companies should, instead, be unleashed to pursue their strategic vision at maximum speed, with every resource at their disposal.