Every career path has its twists and turns, especially for women seeking leadership and C-suite roles. And just one in five executive positions is held by a woman - Korn Ferry wanted to know why.

We followed up our original 2017 research into women CEOs by interviewing the women CEOs from Citigroup Inc., CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance, IBM and more to find out what has changed, what has stayed the same and what organizations need to do to continue making progress.

From the wealth of data we gained from the stories and experiences of the women interviewed, we've distilled six steps organizations need to take now to clear the path for women CEOs.

1 Be more intentional about career development

One of the women CEOs we interviewed said she has mentored women who never really thought they could step into high-risk, high-visibility roles or even take on tough assignments.

Beyond identifying high-performing women as early as possible in their careers, organizations must offer opportunities and challenges and put steps in place to show women what they can achieve. Developing this supportive architecture with clear leadership criteria helps companies identify gaps in experience—including those created by time away from the workforce—and devise strategies to help fill them. This may include allocating different roles and projects that are designed to develop and strengthen women's abilities.

More than half (55%) of the participating CEOs think organizations should provide opportunities that encourage talented female employees to stretch outside of their comfort zones. It could be as straightforward as asking them to represent the company in public, lead a tenacious turnaround or take on an international assignment. With mentoring and support along the way, these women can build the feedback and confidence they need to tackle future challenges.

Many of the women CEOs we spoke with said completing tough jobs gave them thicker skin, more resilience and insights that were invaluable to their progress. "Companies can break the mold and say, 'You know what? What we're going to do is give people exposure and experience outside their own areas where they are comfortable,'" one CEO said. "Then, the real high potentials float to the top."

2 Encourage roles that give a company-wide perspective

It would be difficult to find any CEO who doesn't have profit and loss (P&L) or operational roles in their history. Organizations that want to ensure women are on the CEO path need to put effort into ensuring women can get that experience. It's no surprise that 35% of the women CEOs interviewed said organizations should move more women out of "traditional" female roles such as HR or marketing earlier in their careers.

"I'm seeing women that are too narrowly developed," one CEO pointed out. "And most get P&L experience too late if at all. That is still a major problem."

Encouraging potential female CEOs to gain an enterprise-wide perspective by experiencing roles across the organization has immense value. Leading cross-functional teams, acquiring a breadth of experience, and developing a whole-company mindset are effective ways to prepare for becoming a CEO.

3 Support women executives' boardroom experience

Not all relevant experience comes from roles inside the organization. A significant majority of the CEOs noted that early boardroom experience was a critical component of their success as leaders.

"I believe that it is important to get it sooner [rather] than later," one CEO said.

Seventy percent said sitting on a board boosted their leadership skills and set them up with the know-how to eventually manage their own boards. "It gave me a much better understanding of how to be a better CEO," one woman said. Another CEO stated that she sometimes learned more from fellow board members than from the company she was representing. Many of the women executives described the boardroom as an incredible experience and a game changer.

One way to get to the boardroom is by having other senior executives and colleagues with board experience help to identify relevant opportunities. These referrals can go a long way for emerging leaders. Plus, the skills and expertise these women bring to the table may just end up being a business's strongest asset.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Unleashing the power of all of us.

4 Challenge assumptions about what great leadership looks like

Almost a third of the CEOs we spoke with said leadership mentors, sponsors and role models can help women challenge deeply embedded negative assumptions about leadership norms. It's the leadership coaching and development programs that play a vital role in helping to develop radically human qualities.

Our research also shows that companies that are genuinely committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) programs have seen real and measurable improvements—such as the representation of Black women executives doubling in four years.

Inclusive and equitable HR policies are the bedrock of a diverse talent pipeline. DE&I must be a priority with inclusive leadership norms and metrics monitored with regular 360-degree feedback. Having leadership standards that explicitly spell out senior-role criteria ensures any potential women CEOs can develop along an effective, agreed-upon path.

Organizations should also encourage leaders to check their own mindset by asking how others perceive their behavior.

5 Design structures to support the career journey of potential women CEOs

Many of the women CEOs benefited from objective selection and clear, disciplined promotion practices. Organizations need to design women's career architectures systematically with well-defined leadership criteria. Potential leaders can also benefit from employee resource groups.

Advancement strategies and structures must account for the fact that many women face different challenges than men. Research shows they still carry the majority of family and household responsibilities despite, in many cases, being the primary breadwinner.

Equity is about creating equal opportunities, which means organizations must take these differences into account. It's not, however, just about transparent promotion practices. It's about ensuring women who want those opportunities are supported in taking advantage of them without having to make inequitable sacrifices. For example, an inclusive culture embeds programs like childcare subsidies, inclusive parental leave and wellness incentives. It focuses more on results than logistics by offering flexible hours, opportunities for remote working and hybrid work arrangements.

Organizations can also fund junior-level personnel to support leaders as they take on more responsibilities. This would double as a career-building opportunity for young talent, who will see leadership development in action, learn more about what it takes to succeed and perhaps reset their own ambitions.

6 Establish representation goals and pay equity targets

Accountability underpins the success of any DE&I policy. When the aim is to clear a path for potential women CEOs, it's critical to establish representation goals and pay equity targets. Then, empower and motivate managers to bring more women up the pipeline.

No organization should ever underestimate the power of incentives. "People do what you ask them to do, but they really do what you measure and incentivize," one CEO said. She added that at her company, "moving the needle would not have happened if we did not tie executive incentives to diversity representation goals. So many companies stop short of [those efforts]."

Organizations must provide managers with the tools they need to track their progress, such as manager scorecards and performance expectations. Even after clear policies and expectations are in place, it's important to educate managers and executives about systemic bias and foster an inclusive culture and mindset.

Talk with us about clearing the path for women CEOs

It takes determination and perseverance to make sustainable changes that touch everyone in the organization and culminate in a diverse leadership team. Hear more on the different experiences of women CEOs in our report, Women CEOs Speak Today, and find out more on how you can clear the path for women CEOs.

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