Australian Women CEOs must conquer the glass cliff to reach the top

A report by Korn Ferry in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Company Directors examines careers of current and recent women CEOs.Katie Lahey AM, Executive Chairman, Australasia, Korn Ferry

With just 14 women in CEO roles in the ASX 200, and a weak pipeline of women in c-suite roles, we need to better understand why more women aren’t in key leadership positions. To do this, Korn Ferry interviewed 21 women who hold, or have held CEO roles. We learnt, among other things, that CEO women have worked extremely hard to rise to the CEO role and for many, their careers were more improvised than planned.

One consequence of their pattern of hard work and delivering results is that CEO women were likely to be offered leadership roles when the risk of failure was high – both for themselves and the organisation. It was interesting to learn that close to half (43%) of the women were handed a ‘hospital pass’ for their first CEO role. It is clear that when organisations are in dire straits they turn to women with a reputation for hard work and problem solving to take over.

Turnarounds are vital experiences for developing CEO leadership. But organisations should take care that they aren’t pushing women off the glass cliff and losing potential CEOs if the turnaround has little chance of succeeding.

One woman we interviewed noted that she doesn’t get offered ASX20 CEO roles, but she often gets the opportunity to clean up someone’s mess! As CEO selection is a board responsibility those boards that are willing to entrust the most desperate situations to women should acknowledge that the women are equally capable of leading under normal business conditions.

Our research clearly shows that the women who have ascended to the top role in our organisations and institutions are worthy of the CEO title. The research findings also provide a foundation for deeper discussion on women’s pathways to the senior-executive ranks and can be used to inform and shape leadership programs for women. This work is underway in the US where Korn Ferry is launching a new approach to developing women leaders that incorporates the career levers that have made women successful. In Australia, we are talking with enlightened organisations about leadership programs and development pathways that are designed to give more women access to the c-suite and the pipeline for future CEO roles.

About the report

The Korn Ferry Institute began researching the careers of CEO women in US companies in 2017, and the Australian report is an extension of that work. We conducted structured interviews with 21 Australian women: current and former CEOs, as well as women who had experience heading up professional services firms, government departments, and universities—all CEO equivalent roles. We asked them about their career objectives, obstacles, motivations, and about their experience with boards. Sixteen also took an executive assessment, and we compared their results with Korn Ferry’s executive database.