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By: Laura Manson-Smith
It’s not often that you hear a CEO tell a childhood story about being beaten up with a baseball bat. Rarely does a CEO go onstage, in front of an audience, and admit that they didn’t want the job at first because of the company culture. And it’s even less often that a CEO talks about how it felt to be gay in the military.
But if you were at the recent Fortune “Most Powerful Women” summit, you heard female leader after female leader recount stories just like these. That girl who got bullied and beaten up, for instance, was Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, who said the experience gave her the determination to succeed. That woman who at first didn’t want the CEO role was Cynt Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. And the female who had to hide her true self? Gina Ortiz Jones, former Under Secretary of the Air Force.
We often talk about purpose, authenticity, and vulnerability in leadership. We don’t often see them on display. To be sure, these women weren’t alone in sharing personal stories of grit and resilience that shaped them as leaders. Collectively, the summit served as another reminder that not only is the CEO role changing, but also that women are driving the change.
Our recent study, Women CEOs Speak Today—a post-pandemic follow up to our original 2017 report in which we interviewed female corporate leaders about their path to the top job—made clear that the traditional command-and-control style of leadership is at best outdated, and at worst a threat to performance. In its wake, a new kind of leader has emerged, one who is empathetic, accessible, inclusive, and, above all, fallible. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the female CEOs in our study believe that these traits are necessary to succeed in the top role today.
That’s why we need to accelerate the cultivation of female leaders. There has been progress, with women now accounting for more than 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs, up from 6% five years ago. But more work needs to be done. As Jane Edison Stevenson, vice chair of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice and coleader of the Women CEOs Speak studies, says, “Female CEOs are still fortuitous appointments based on a small number of breakthrough opportunities. That’s very different than creating sustainable pipelines.” She points to data showing that women hold only 21% of executive roles globally. And even in industries where they make up more than 50% of the total workforce (think healthcare, retail, the public sector), women remain underrepresented at the executive level. Meanwhile, the pandemic saw more women than men leave the workforce—a 4.2% decline in labor-force participation versus only 3%—and experts predict it will take longer than the duration of the crisis itself for women to regain those losses.
Against this backdrop, the female leaders at Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women” summit weren’t just sharing personal stories. They were bringing to life a new kind of leadership, hopefully one that paves the way for more female leaders. More than two-thirds of women in our study said they never thought they could become CEO until someone else told them they could. The fact that we still don’t see ourselves as CEOs means we need to be more visible. So when Marshall says that she didn’t want the role as Mavericks CEO after beating cancer, but changed her mind for the express purpose of “elevating women”—and then actually does that by increasing their representation to 50% of the leadership team—it’s more than just a story. It’s a practical example of how one woman’s experiences can inform her belief that inclusion and bringing out the power of people can lead to both better business and a better world.
Manson-Smith is global leader for organization strategy consulting at Korn Ferry.