A couple of months ago I was attending a conference where they had a panel that consisted of Women CEOs, specifically in the utility industry. The panel participants were also the same CEOs who had been interviewed for a Korn Ferry Institute research project titled Women CEOs Speak – strategies for the next generation of female executives and how companies can pave the road. This project was also supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.
Korn Ferry is the preeminent global people and organizational advisory firm. They help leaders, organizations, and societies succeed by realizing the full power and potential of people. Korn Ferry Institute is Korn Ferry’s research and analytics arm, and was established to share intelligence and expert point of views on talent and leadership. They do this through studies, books and a quarterly magazine, Briefings. They aim to increase understanding of how strategic talent decisions contribute to competitive advantage, growth and success. So, as you can imagine I knew immediately that they would have an interesting take on women CEOs (or lack-there-of).
What motivates a study like this? When roughly 94% of Fortune 1,000 CEOs are men you may ask yourself, “what qualities drive the 6% who are women in the most elite reaches of corporate leadership?” To find out, the Korn Ferry Institute studied 57 women who have been CEO – 38 currently and 19 previously – at Fortune 1,000 – listed companies and others of similar size. They analyzed structured interviews with all 57 women and the results of psychometric assessments taken by two-thirds of them. The Rockefeller Foundation, which funded the research, wants to change the astounding fact that only 6% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women in 2017. Re-read that again. Only 6% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women in 2017. I know I have written a series in the past about women in the workforce, and I try hard to not sound like a hell-bent feminist (not that there’s anything wrong if that’s how you describe yourself) but I try hard to support women’s rights but also not be so into it that I don’t have a realistic viewpoint of what is going on. I think this study does just that by taking a very hard look at what is keeping women CEOs from becoming a norm and not a “nice-to-have” at companies. The Rockefeller Foundation, has established a target through it’s 100 x 25 initiative which is to have 100 women leading Fortune 500 companies by 2025. Korn Ferry’s portion of that initiative, called the CEO Pipeline Project, seeks to learn from the women who have already succeeded at becoming CEOs, and what women in the workforce now can do to take the CEO path, and most importantly, what companies and organizations can do to help women succeed along the path to CEO.
I have a copy of the study and found it moving so much so that I wanted to share it here, along with my thoughts – especially given that I have never had a desire to be a CEO, let alone even manage people. Nonetheless, I still felt it was interesting and useful information to share. Also, I feel as if this holds a special place in my heart. When I was working at the utility, I was present for the announcement of the utility’s first female CEO. It wasn’t lost on me that I was witnessing history, and she was also part of this study. I hope you enjoy what I have to share and reflect on with this topic.
To ground this research, Korn Ferry gathered publicly available biographical data about all female CEOs in 2017 Fortune 1,000 companies and compared that to a parallel example of male CEOs who led companies of the same revenue size. Interestingly, when demographically compared, male and female CEOs look very similar, and while the differences are subtle, they definitely add up. Here is a quick comparison:
- The women were, on average, four years older when they got their very first CEO appointment, though it is worth noting that in the study’s male sample many CEOs were their company’s founder.
- Overall, the women accrued more diverse experience by working in a greater average number of senior roles, functions, companies and industries.
- The fortune 1,000 data also reveal that female CEOs are not spread evenly across industries.
- They are in greater numbers in consumer goods, utilities, and finance (particularly insurance), but less represented in industrial companies and the health and life sciences.
The next question Korn Ferry asked themselves to ground their research, was: “is 100 x 25 attainable?” The answer is yes, but the pace needs to accelerate. They found that in higher-revenue Fortune 500 companies, women held the CEO role at 32 companies in mid-2017, up from 12 just a decade earlier and two in 1997! Now, this next fact surprised me, especially in comparison to other countries…it currently takes 269 days on average to place a female CEO in the US – which is 30% longer than the 207 days to place a male CEO. When compared to Europe and Middle East markets, there is no such delay and women are placed 14% faster than men, and in Asia-Pacific where they placed women 22% more quickly. What Korn Ferry says this suggests is that boards of directors in the US still aren’t open to female CEOs as boards in other countries. So, what gives?
Before I dive a bit deeper, for those of you who have the analytic mind (not me), I will outline the Korn Ferry Institute’s research tools:
- Korn Ferry conducted structured interviews with the 57 CEOs, asking about key events in each woman’s career progression, including pivoted experiences, set-backs, and factors that enabled or hindered her success. These were analyzed and coded to determine common themes.
- Their assessment for executive leaders specifically measured:
- Traits: A person’s inclinations and aptitudes, such as personality traits and intellectual capacity. Traits also include attributes such as assertiveness, risk-taking, optimism, and confidence.
- Drivers: Deeply held values and internal motivators that guide a person’s actions and decisions. A desire for power, challenge, or work-life balance are things we categorize as drivers.
- Competencies: The observable skills essential to management success, such as innovation and strategic vision.
Some of the main characteristics identified were personal fortitude and courage – or what they like to call “the right stuff.” That’s what female CEOs exhibited in their assessment scores, beginning with their traits. According to Korn Ferry, their mean score matched their CEO benchmark on 16 of 20 traits, including persistence, need for achievement, curiosity, focus, assertiveness, risk-taking, and empathy. I know, as a woman, that I have many of those characteristics myself, and they are among the characteristics about myself that I am most proud of, so it was no surprise to see those reflected in their study. The places in which women deviated from the benchmark were in humility, confidence, credibility and openness to difference.
I have always believed that how you are brought up and just your own personal makeup is identified early on in life. Korn Ferry’s study found similarly, that personal traits are not immutable, but they are established early in life and difficult to alter. So, the close alignment to the CEO benchmark suggests that these women had the style and mindset of a CEO early in their careers. I thought this was so interesting! So, remember when you hear someone say – that little girl will be a CEO someday…they just might be on to something!
Additionally, Korn Ferry found that humility and valuing others reign over confidence, ambition and drive growth out of early formative experiences, and their outlook is optimistic and fearless. I’ll break them down below:
Humility and valuing others reign over confidence
- High humility scores indicate a lack of self-absorption and more importantly, an expressed appreciation of others.
- These women are very willing to give credit to people and situations that contributed to their success.
- The female CEOs repeatedly made note of people who’d helped and supported them.
- Credibility is generally shorthand for delivering on your word, but in their assessment it also captures something better described as dutifulness or “good soldier” behavior.
These are so interesting to me. All of those characteristics described above are exactly what I like to see in a leader, and I know for a fact I have made gripes and complaints of a leader lacking in all of those areas. Why isn’t this the norm in all leaders? Maybe that’s the problem – it should be the norm, but it is hard to come by. Could there be a direct correlation between that and the lack of female leadership? Maybe!
Ambition and drive grow out of early formative experiences
- In the interviews, they heard that these traits have deep roots.
- Asked about “key events in your career progression that contributed to your development as a person or a leader,” many spoke first not of their career but of their childhood. In their interviews, 23% of the key events the CEOs chose to discuss were about personal experiences unrelated to work.
- Parents instilled resilience, high expectations, and a strong work ethic in their daughters. Some CEOs had particularly difficult childhoods – a parent was ill or deceased, for example – and they had to take on responsibilities when quite young.
- More than 40% of the CEOs earned undergraduate college degrees in science, math or engineering. This prevalence of STEM degrees may seem surprising, but similar rates are seen in male CEOs as well.
- Another 19% studied business, economics, or finance, while 21% were in the arts and humanities.
Their outlook is optimistic and fearless
- Generally speaking, the women CEOs were not at all cynical about the corporate world they entered.
- Their traits scores and interviews both indicated that they are highly optimistic, trusting, sociable and empathetic.
- The interviews underscored how much emphasis these women placed on being authentic and remaining true to themselves.
- Compromising on their values – or on their vision – is not in their makeup, even if it would mean turning down some opportunities for advancement.
- Some said they didn’t feel they could give their all to a goal, strategy, or company that they didn’t believe in.
- These women seek input at critical stages, then solidly make up their mind. And these women are exceptionally focused on pursuing their own vision.
What I especially appreciate about this study, is that they highlight key takeaways from each section for women and then separately for organizations. As you can imagine, especially given the numbers Korn Ferry offered about the slowness in approving women CEOs, organizations and companies can still take a word of advice on how to cultivate and identify potential women CEOs. To give you a taste of how Korn Ferry offers key takeaways for each section, below I have listed the takeaways for the information just outlined.
Takeaways for organizations
- The traits that made these women CEO material – curiosity, willingness to take risks, persistence, and a need for achievement – were reinforced early in their lives. But these traits are not rare among women, and can be further cultivated in the workplace.
Takeaways for Women
- An education in science, math or engineering sets a strong foundation for becoming a business leader.
- While confidence is important, tempering it with equally high levels of humility doesn’t seem to have hurt these CEO’s careers.
- Women should also pay attention to the issue of openness to difference. Women who are in the minority in an office might presume they are sufficiently exposed to differing (in this case, male) points of view. But CEOs aggressively seek out others’ opinions as they shape their own strategic vision.
I hope you have found this first installment of the Korn Ferry Institute’s “Women CEOs Speak” interesting. To really give you a detailed idea about what characteristics are most prominent in women CEOs is a great way to ground the study and to kick off my series of posts. Next up I will share with you how the traits outlined by Korn Ferry in this blog post are the ingredients needed to become a CEO. The main question Korn Ferry poses though is, what values and interests or motivators, referred to as drivers, guided the women’s career decisions?
Let me know what you think about this blog post and anything else you’d like to share about female CEOs!