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By: Jane Edison Stevenson and Evelyn Orr
Only 6.4% of Fortune 500 companies are run by female CEOs, and while there is incremental progress — there are 32 female CEOs this year, the highest percentage ever, compared with only 21 last year — the rate of change can feel excruciatingly slow.
But what if there were a way to make breakthrough progress by applying research-based tools and strategies to boost these numbers faster? With that objective in mind — and as part of their 100×25 initiative, which is pushing for female CEOs to lead 100 of the Fortune 500 by 2025 — the Rockefeller Foundation provided a grant for Korn Ferry to design and execute a research project geared to developing action-oriented initiatives to create a sustainable pipeline of female CEOs.
We secured the participation of 57 female CEOs — 41 from Fortune 1000 companies and 16 from large privately held companies. We then conducted a series of in-depth individual interviews, delving into pivotal experiences in their personal history and career progression, and using Korn Ferry’s executive online assessment to measure key personality traits and drivers that had an impact. Our goal: to crack the code of these women’s success, in order to help organizations better identify and leverage their highest-potential female leaders and to ensure more women succeed in the future.
Throughout the research, Korn Ferry used our best-in-class CEO benchmark, which comprises typical scores for CEOs (virtually all male) who are in the 99th percentile of work engagement, as a touchstone to highlight similarities and underscore differences for the women in the study.
Following are six insights that emerged from the study, with illustrative quotes from some of the CEOs we interviewed — unattributed to ensure complete candor — that are directly relevant to building a pipeline of female CEOs.
Women could be ready for the CEO role sooner. Prior to landing the top job, female CEOs in the study worked in a slightly higher number of roles, functions, companies, and industries than men leading companies of a comparable size. In essence, the women worked harder and longer to get to the same place. They were four years older, when compared with benchmark data, before becoming CEO and brought more-diverse functional and industry experience to the position. Some women expressed frustration about the delay. As one put it, “There are still too many women in support functions. They have to prove themselves 10 times over before they’re actually given the opportunity, so their development takes longer.” With women apparently expending more energy to achieve the same result, the longer runway gives them fewer years to have an impact in the top job.