Only a few women rise to the top of Fortune 500 companies, but two researchers are hell-bent on getting more there. Here’s what they’ve found you need to make it.
Most women in leadership work hard. But some get ahead and others don’t. The two Korn Ferry researchers wanted to know why that happens.
They studied what’s behind the success of female CEO’s (57 of them, to be exact) and how their personal history, pivotal experiences and career progress can help other women get to the top of their organizations.
Researchers coupled in-depth interviews with an online assessment of personality traits and career drivers.
Here’s what they uncovered and how you can use the research for your own career development.
1. Use diversity to your advantage
Most of the top female CEOs (41 were from Fortune 1000 companies and 16 were from large, private companies) were in more roles and worked at more organizations and industries than men at the helm of similar companies. Bottom line: Women had to show success in more jobs – and work harder and longer – than men did before they earned the top spot.
For you: Use that diverse background to your advantage. Exposure to different roles and industries broadens your insight and increases your hands-on knowledge. Emphasize that when you want a promotion or new, larger job.
2. Show results, positive impact
Female and male CEOs are motivated by collaborating with others, taking on more responsibility and gaining a larger scope of insight. But most women aren’t usually attracted to a role for status, power and reward. More often, women are driven by a deeper sense of purpose and a desire to add value to their organizations and shape the culture of where they work.
For you: Dig deep. What drives you to succeed? It’s OK if it’s power and status. But if there’s more, don’t be afraid to express it. You can gain allegiance and respect by sharing your vision for creating an organization that is driven by a sense of purpose in the community and industry, plus shaping a culture that fosters personal and organizational well-being.
3. Hone key traits
Researchers found four traits and competencies that showed up consistently among the top female CEOs:
- resilience, and
These are high-demand expectations of any executive today. There’s no way around: If you want to move into top leadership positions, you must hone them.
For you: As anyone takes on more responsibility, fear often swells up in the face of what’s ambiguous and complex. But those are the opportunities to build courage, a tolerance for risk and resilience. As you gain more responsibility, gather as much information from inside and outside experts, plus front-line employees who’ve “been there, done that” to take calculated risks.
4. Go to and recognize contributors
In the study’s assessment, women CEOs score much higher on humility than men. In interviews, they recognized that they needed others’ help, cooperation and expertise to make things happen and achieve success. Equally important, women readily gave credit to people who contributed to their individual and organizational successes. Even as they climbed the corporate ladder, they recognized that no one person – themselves included – defined outcomes and futures.
For you: You’re smart, but as one CEO put it, “When you have humility … people want to help you, and it’s a strength to ask for help, not a weakness.” Pull people up with you by relying on their expertise, using their insight, and recognizing every contribution they make.
5. Lay the groundwork
Almost all of the CEOs had a background in STEM, business, finance or economics. That helped them build credibility in areas that are key to most corporate goals.
For you: Even if you don’t have a background in one of those four key areas, you can beef up your knowledge on them by attending seminars, regularly enrolling in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and working closely with the finance experts in your corporation. Also, build and maintain a network of women leaders who meet regularly to share leadership skills and knowledge they’d like to improve and ways to do it.
6. See yourself in the position you want
Most CEOs in the study admitted that they didn’t realize they could rise to that level. Why? They were so focused on getting results for the company, they didn’t focus on their own career. But one thing catapulted most of them: A boss or mentor sparked their long-term ambition.
For you: Find that boss or mentor who will champion your ambitions, and candidly tell you what you need to do to get there. Meet regularly to stay on top of your work targets and career goals.
Most women in leadership can’t expect their organizations to create a pipeline and opportunity for them to take over the C-suite (although researchers suggest that more organizations do just that). But you can take steps to advance your career to the level that you want.