Finding Your Hidden Leaders

The table below summarizes two groups of CEOs on the CEO1000. Scan down each column and it’s clear that they are fairly similar in education, background, financial performance, company size. It isn’t until the bottom row that the difference becomes clear. Group A is dramatically smaller than Group B—and, as you’ve probably guessed, Group A is female, while Group B is male. It’s no secret that women are underrepresented among the CEO ranks—but these figures from the CEO1000 database provide a striking illustration of that reality.

Often, statistics underscore women’s abilities in the top job. On average, they run larger companies, rank slightly better in terms of financial performance, and are somewhat more likely to have attended top schools. “Not surprisingly, the data indicate that female CEOs are at least as qualified and successful as their male counterparts,” says Deborah Rubin, senior partner and practice leader co-head of Board & CEO Services at RHR International.

If ability and performance do not explain the difference in the number of male and female CEOs, what does? While a variety of reasons may contribute, a key one lies within the company’s control. “The relative scarcity of women in the top leadership role strongly suggests that for many organizations, the current process for developing a leadership pipeline continues to have inherent flaws that create talent leakage,” Rubin says.

Leadership is increasingly important to companies, and companies essentially work against themselves when they allow that leakage to continue. To help remedy that situation, they can take steps to nurture women leaders:

Build the Pipeline. “While clearly defining the experiences and skills required for any successful CEO, organizations need to continue tailoring their talent development approaches to also address the specific organizational challenges and needs that women encounter as they move through their careers, versus relying upon a general model derived from what is more typical of men,” says Rubin.

For example, RHR’s research highlights the importance of authenticity for women leaders, both in terms of their own long-term motivation and resilience and their ability to influence and galvanize others.

Shape the Culture. To open a better path to the top for women, companies also need to create a culture that enables women to be tomorrow’s leaders. That means making sure that “throughout their careers, women are given the key assignments that help build critical knowledge, skills and credibility necessary for the business leader roles in the C-Suite,” says Cristina Jimenez, partner and co-leader of RHR International’s Diversity and Inclusion Services.

Encourage Potential. Coaching and development also play key roles. Growth assignments can be “supplemented with early and ongoing career discussions encouraging
women to take risks and demonstrate courage when aiming for the top role,” says Jimenez. “Women need consistency in candid feedback regarding any gaps, along with mentoring and active sponsors.”

As the CEO1000 data shows, companies prefer to look within for CEO successors. By boosting efforts to develop women, companies can tap into this often-overlooked source of top talent and expand that internal pipeline to keep the new leaders coming—including tomorrow’s CEOs.

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