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Study On Women In The Corner Office Finds Progress, But Still A Ways To Go

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Fewer women than in the past said they had to ‘fight’ their way into the corner office, nor were they surprised when they were tapped for the role.

It’s lonely at the top, but according to a new Korn Ferry study, women CEOs are slowly getting a bit more company.

The study, Women CEOs Speak Today, highlights the career journeys of women CEOs and what led to their successes and their ability to transform the CEO role. The study updates 2017 research done by Korn Ferry and The Rockefeller Foundation, and reveals that while progress has been made, much more needs to be accomplished.

Just five years ago women represented only 6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Today, that number has risen to approximately 9%. The progress that has been made toward The Rockefeller Foundation’s goal of 20% women CEOs in the Fortune 500 by 2025 is positive, but not nearly enough. To continue to build momentum, starting early in their careers, women need to be encouraged and offered development opportunities to rise to the highest echelons of the corporate world. Today, female CEOs are still largely “fortuitous appointments” rather than the result of tapping into systemic, sustainable pipelines.

Study after study shows that diverse leadership is more than a nice-to-have, it’s a business imperative to increase performance and profitability. “I’ve seen firsthand that when women lead, they succeed, from the corporate boardroom to the walls of power to the Situation Room. To address today’s challenges, we can, and we must, meet the demand for talented CEOs with the many qualified women ready to lead—it is simply in everyone’s best interests,” said Retired Adm. James Stavridis, Chair of The Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees.

The new study finds rich diversity in women’s paths to the CEO role today—everything from engineering to sales, law and medicine, along with the finance and STEM backgrounds found among women who participated in the first study.

The study also notes that fewer women today said they had to ‘fight’ their way into the corner office, nor were they surprised when they were tapped for the role. These CEOs were aware that being CEO was a possibility for them and they sought roles and board service that would prepare them to lead at the enterprise level.

Also, in many cases they say they were cultivated by sponsors/mentors to become CEOs, and importantly, they were highly interested in being looked at as CEOs and not as women CEOs.

So why hasn’t more progress been made? Organizations continue to hold most of the power in determining the diversity of their own C-suites. Much of that control is shared between boards, top executives and HR. It’s imperative that all groups foster sustaining and inclusive, systemic practices to promote and identify talent early. It’s not just promoting women but putting them clearly on succession tracks. The report on female CEOs echoes this, with 40% of respondents emphasizing the need for companies to talk early with employees about their career potential and provide programs that support leadership career paths.

At most companies, future CEOs need to be in sequenced global rotations across P&L leadership and key enterprise roles starting 10 to 15 years before they enter the C-suite. These key roles, especially broad general-management jobs, are often skipped over—leading to the lack of experienced candidates.

Future CEOs typically need leadership experience in specific positions: operating profit-and-loss roles, functional enterprise-wide roles, and geographic leadership roles that allow rising stars to see from a broad lens. Early board seats are also important, an idea echoed by 70% of the female leaders in the CEO report.

Few corporate pipelines are dependably hitting all those marks, and fewer still include women at every stage of their careers. Standards and policies for ascension should be clear and transparent. Succession processes often need to be rethought and potentially redesigned.

For organizations, the report recommends fostering a culture that encourages intentional growth and development in a systemic fashion, and supports women as they move across areas to gain an enterprise perspective. For women, it recommends opening their aperture to the corner office, building and leveraging key relationships and alliances (both inside and outside their company), and practicing the self-care so essential to extending and sustaining their leadership impact.


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