Women CEOs Didn't Expect to be CEOs

November 9, 2017

Most women CEOs never thought they were going to become CEOs until they were encouraged to go down that path.

That’s one key finding from a just released study of serving female CEOs by Korn Ferry.

The study, which included 57 women from mainly Fortune 1000 companies and large privately held companies, was supported by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation as part of their 100x25 initiative, with a mission to get at least 100 Fortune 500 women CEOs by 2025. (There have only been 94 Fortune 500 women CEOs.)

“Rather than focusing on why more women are not CEOs, we focused on quantifying what their common success factors were: common experiences, competencies, and traits and drivers that enabled them to become CEOs of major companies, Jane Edison Stevenson, Korn Ferry's Global Leader for CEO succession, who led the research initiative.

As for women CEOs not anticipating a journey to the corner office, the research found that two-thirds of the women said they never realized they could become CEO until a boss or mentor encouraged them, and instead focused on hitting business targets and seeking new challenges, rather than on their personal career advancement.

Other key findings include:

  • These CEOs worked harder and longer to get to the top: 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.
  • They were driven by both a sense of purpose and achieving business results: More than two-thirds of the women interviewed and assessed said they were motivated by a sense of purpose and their belief that their company could have a positive impact on the community, employees, and the world around them. Nearly a quarter pointed to creating a positive culture as one of their proudest accomplishments.
  • Differentiating traits sustained the women's success on the road to CEO: Defining traits and competencies that emerged time and again in the research included courage, risk-taking, resilience, agility and managing ambiguity.
  • They were more likely to engage the power of teams: Scoring significantly higher than the benchmark group on humility – indicative of a consistent lack of self-promotion, an expressed appreciation for others, and a tendency to share the credit – the women CEOs were more likely to leverage others to achieve desired results.
  • The women shared STEM and financial backgrounds that served as a springboard: Early in their career, nearly 60% of the women had demonstrable expertise in either STEM (40 percent) or business/finance/economics (19%), all fields where they could prove themselves with precise, definable outcomes and that are crucial to success of the business.
  • "One thing that struck us during the research was how closely the women CEOs' traits aligned with those of the modern leaders that boards are now seeking: courageous and able to successfully navigate uncertainty and ambiguity in a constantly shifting environment," explains Evelyn Orr, chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute and a leader of the research initiative.