Good news: The number of female Fortune 500 CEOs is doubling every five years, and two insightful women and their team at organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry have designed a program to accelerate that trend and increase your odds.
Jane Stevenson and Evelyn Orr, both c-suite executives themselves, studied 57 female CEOs to uncover the common personal attributes and workplace experiences that prepared–and propelled–these women to the pinnacle of career success in spite of the headwinds against them. “We were tired of talking about the problem,” Stevenson said, “we wanted to find out what happens when women are successful and why. And we wanted to replicate it.” Here are some highlights we all can act on immediately:
1. Accomplishment is driven by purpose. Know yours.
68% of CEO women shared that they were motivated by a sense of purpose, with about a quarter sharing that creating a positive culture was among their greatest accomplishment. “While ambition is about self, purpose is about altruism,” says Orr, “something outside of ourselves that has impact and changes the game.”
2. If someone says you have real potential, believe them.
A whopping two-thirds of women CEO's never saw themselves as a CEO, until someone told them they so. Only 12 percent held CEO aspirations for a long time.
3. Run, don’t walk toward P&L experience.
The research found there are two career stages that prepare women to be a CEO. The first is about building a foundation of expertise and credibility. The second is about broadening your experience, particularly in a P&L role. Recognize the pivot point and take the lead.
4. Understand your preferred career approach & optimize it.
Korn Ferry identified four unique career approaches that propelled women to leadership–and they are not necessarily vertical.
- Lifelong Learners are focused on finding the next challenge. Think Meg Whitman jumping from the toy business to tech to politics, back to tech and on to
- Bird’s Eye types focus on getting enterprise perspective. Consider how Mary Barra spent more than 30 years at GM in a series of vastly different roles throughout the organization.
- Innovation/Growth is a path fueled by building new businesses, like Angela Ahrendtsdid as CEO of Burberry before bringing her passion to Apple.
- Career Builders are laser-focused on a path and avoid distractions. Denise Morrison, most recently at Campbell’s, has often said she was born to be a CEO.
5. Recognize that how you demonstrate confidence is unique from your male colleagues.
The research shows that women CEOs share 17 of 20 traits with best-in-class CEO benchmarks. Confidence, credibility and openness were the three traits the data says challenge women most, but the reality is these traits can’t be measured the same way in men and women.
“Confidence shows up differently in women,” says Stevenson, “women don’t assume that they alone have what it takes to go the distance. They take a collective view and attribute credit to others who help them.”
As for credibility, Stevenson explains that it’s often interpreted as trust that is past based, when it is really about confidence for the future. “Women tend to assume their past results speak for themselves, but that is not the case unless they gain the organization’s confidence that future outcomes will likely be successful.”
Addressing openness, Orr described how women leaders have a strong independent streak, breaking from expectations and chartering their own course. “Women are self-reliant,” she says, “and yet, extremely collaborative.”