With just 6 percent of Fortune 500 companies headed up by a female CEO, corporate leadership is in desperate need of more female chief executives.
A new study from the Korn Ferry Institute looked into the factors behind the success of some women CEOs by surveying 57 women who are or have been a CEO.
Surprisingly, just 12 percent of survey respondents said they started their careers with the goal of becoming a chief executive. More than half of respondents said they didn’t even think about becoming a CEO until someone else told them they could do the job.
In addition to the survey, Korn Ferry also conducted executive psychometric assessments with 38 survey participants. A report based on the survey and assessments laid out several key aspects behind the female journey to chief executive officer.
An early start
The average scores on the assessments matched 16 of 20 benchmarks for CEO traits, including persistence, ambition, curiosity, assertiveness, risk-taking, and empathy. Average scores deviated on qualities like humility, confidence, and open-mindedness, the study found.
Personality traits usually are not set in stone, but they are largely established in early childhood. Therefore, these results indicate these women had the disposition of a typical chief executive in their formative years.
Success through challenge, variety
Perhaps not surprisingly, these female CEOs tended to show a very strong desire to challenge themselves. Of all the 60 qualities assessed in the study, scores for ‘challenge’ ranked among the highest.
Researchers behind the study said women in chief executive positions tended to actively seek out new challenges. Other psychometric assessment results showed participants were not motivated by predictable jobs and sought out variety instead.
The Korn Ferry researchers concluded that the standard path of routine job promotions did not satisfy their volunteers. Instead, they took on ill-defined roles or created their own opportunities.
Growing into leadership through mentoring
As stated before, more than half of the women in the survey said they had not seen themselves as a CEO until someone else told them they could do it. It seems these women were more focused on getting results than racking up their own personal achievements.
Companies that want to cultivate female leaders should remind the women in their organization that they are capable of being a chief executive. Also, the survey found female CEOs tended to have mentors and a support system that gave them career advice and showed them the importance of relationships. This kind of support appears to be must more useful than coaching that focuses on the strategic or financial nuts-and-bolts of leading a business.
The path to CEO
The report also laid out two career stages that participants on the path to CEO.
The first stage involved building credibility by showing undeniable results, establishing a reputation for success, earning the respect of their peers and positioning themselves as a key figure in the business. The second stage involved broadening professional experience through being an effective leader of others, taking on new types of assignments and developing the ability to inspire others.
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