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Make or Break


by Robin Gerrow

What Propels Women Into Leadership May Differ From What Keeps Them There

It’s one thing to get to the corner office; staying there can be something else, at least for women.

A recent in-depth study of female CEOs sought to determine if the skills necessary to break the glass ceiling were the same as those needed to keep from going off the glass cliff.

The research, conducted by Dr. Susanne Blazek, Dr. James Lewis, Signe Spencer, and Evelyn Orr at the Korn Ferry Institute, and supported by an interdisciplinary group of Korn Ferry colleagues, found that the competencies that propel women to the CEO level are different from those that successful female CEOs, who are also considered highly engaged, exhibit.

Presented at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in Chicago, Illinois, Blazek’s research touches on several topics in SIOP’s 2018 Top 10 Workplace Trends, including the issues of leadership development and improvement, and diversity, inclusion and equity.

Given that only 6 percent of U.S. CEOs are women, the sample was small, but the team was able to triangulate three samples for this study: two global assessment data samples and one interview sample of 57 current and former Fortune 500 CEOs – the largest of its kind to date.

What they found is that the traits that can help women attain the role of CEO include strategic vision and resilience, but that success in the position required slightly different competencies. In addition to the traits required to become CEOs, women who are considered highly engaged in the role needed the added competencies of courage, self-awareness, and nimble learning.

“There are some differences in the competencies we found that set apart those who became CEOs and those who were highly engaged as CEOs,” Blazek said. “To become a CEO, women had to be skilled at balancing stakeholders, driving results, and aligning the organization—competencies that are more easily observed and the effects of which are more quantifiable. Those who were highly engaged as CEOs tended to score higher in people competencies such as courage, persuasion, and instilling trust.

“In 68%of the interviews, CEOs gave detailed descriptions of creating a more positive, transparent, purpose-driven culture that treated people well and provided flexibility and support—all effects of people-oriented competencies,” Blazek said.  “Twenty-three percent considered this among their most important accomplishments.”

Courage was another competency seen in highly engaged women CEOs. These women have the confidence and willingness to take risks with difficult tasks and roles, and do them well. Self-awareness was also seen as important—being unafraid of asking for feedback and help as well as recognizing how they were perceived and adjusting their approach according to their audience. Finally, nimble learning was seen as a key trait. The highly engaged CEOs were constantly learning and stretching themselves by taking on new positions and assignments, and broadening their perspectives through their experiences.

“With this research, I was less surprised, and more awed, by the finding that high-performing female CEOs tended to show so much humility,” Blazek said. “From our interviews, we know that female CEOs show high levels of courage, self-awareness, and engaging and inspiring others, not the typical competencies one thinks of when one thinks of Fortune 500 CEOs.”

Blazek said the study pointed to a number of recommendations both for women aspiring to the role of CEO, and for organizations looking to increase their pipeline of women leaders.

“One thing women don’t need to do anymore is give up on having a family,” she said. “They also don’t need to act like men and shouldn’t put up with sexist behavior in the workplace. Women also should stop hiding their light—think about your career and be transparent about your ambitions. Be open about that will help you gain the experiences and skills needed to run a business. Look for connections with people who will mentor, sponsor and advocate for you. On a more practical level, start your path with a quantitative degree and an operational job. And, persist. You have to deal with disappointment, crisis, and failure, then move on.”

From an organizational standpoint, Blazek said there is a series of steps to take starting with early career recommendations and continuing through specifically CEO-oriented ones.

“Organizations really need to start with a strong purpose and a good culture,” she continued. “Put women in core operational roles early on. For mid-career women, broaden their scope, experience, and skills, and explicitly recognize and nurture women’s leadership potential. Finally, the organization may need to update their thinking and language about leadership and have a strong, objective assessment and succession process.”

Although it isn’t going to happen overnight, grooming women to be successful leaders is a win–win proposition for everyone.

“Organizations—and the women in them—benefit from well-planned and organized talent management processes,” Blazek said. “Given the shortage of top leadership talent now and anticipated for the future, who can afford to lose half their potential leaders?”

Connect with Susanne Blazek by email.