Women CEOs Share Defining Traits, Report Says

Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (center), is just one of a handful of CEO of global companies, compared to hundreds of male CEOs.

Women CEOs face a longer, more difficult climb to the top, and they are more likely to come from STEM and finance backgrounds, new research suggests.

Those are some of the findings in a study by the Korn Ferry Institute, which conducted one-on-one interviews with 57 women CEOs to learn about their experiences, competencies, traits and what drives them.

Of the women surveyed, 41 are CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies and 16 run large privately held companies. Researchers point out that only 6% of Fortune 1000 companies are women, and there have been only 94 women CEOs ever in the Fortune 500.

The Rockefeller Foundation supported the Korn Ferry research as part of its 100×25 initiative, which aims to reach at least 100 Fortune 500 women CEOs by 2025.

The study found that the same defining traits and competencies emerged time and time again in the interviews with the CEOs—risk-taking, resilience, agility and managing ambiguity.

“There’s a need to tap into the highly consistent traits and drivers of the 57 women in their organizations and make sure they get matched,” says Jane Stevenson, Korn Ferry’s Global Leader for CEO succession, who led the research initiative.

Among the findings, the women CEOs were an average of four years older than their male counterparts and worked in a slightly higher number of roles, functions, companies and industries.

Researchers found that the women shared backgrounds in STEM and finance that helped them establish a higher level of credibility that they could broaden into leadership.

“Roles in STEM and finance helped them get closer to the core of the business,” says Evelyn Orr, Chief Operating Officer of the Korn Ferry Institute and a leader of the research initiative.

Another finding was that the women initially didn’t set their sights on becoming CEO, despite their evident potential. Two-thirds of the women said they never considered the possibility of becoming CEO until a boss or mentor encouraged them.

“It was not just what they knew or who they knew, but also who knew what they knew,” Stevenson says.

Researchers hope the study will create a roadmap for women building careers and companies looking for CEO material. The research concludes:

Women need training as business executives, not just as leaders. “Men tend to be trained in business. Women tend to be trained, but they miss some of those core first steps that are hard to recover,” Stevenson says.

Women also need a sponsor who can help them advance—meaning a person within their organization who keys in on their talents and has the ability to open doors.

Companies need to be able to identify women in their organizations who possess common CEO traits and make sure these women are placed in executive positions.

“We can look early on and find potential people who have what it takes to run the company. That’s an exciting finding,” Orr says.

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Autumn Cafiero Giusti

Autumn Cafiero Giusti is a veteran business writer and editor specializing in global payments, e-commerce and personal finance. She is based in New Orleans.