The New Playbook for Advancing Women in Leadership

Our landmark study on women CEOs reveals how boards can help cultivate more female leaders.

Whether it’s through governments passing pay-equity laws, major institutional shareholders demanding more women on corporate boards, or Hollywood stars delivering rousing speeches promoting female movie directors, empowering women has become de rigeuer.

But a lack of women in senior roles isn’t just a social issue, it’s a business problem, says Jane Stevenson, Korn Ferry’s global leader for CEO Succession and vice chairman of the firm’s Board & CEO Services practice. Women make up 45% the S&P 500 workforce, but only 27% of the S&P 500’s senior leadership positions are held by women, and fewer than 6% of the nation’s biggest corporations are run by women, according to the nonprofit research group Catalyst. “If 50% of your capabilities were underutilized, would you feel confident, as a board member, that you were doing a great job?” she says.

Stevenson and her Korn Ferry colleagues, in conjunction with the Rockefeller Foundation, interviewed 57 of the 94 women who have ever run a major US corporation, aiming to discover the traits they share and expand their success to others. The study, “Women CEOs Speak,” found that the CEOs were driven by a desire to achieve outstanding business results as well as by a sense of purpose—a belief that their organization could have a positive impact on the community and the world around them. 


The study also found that board directors played three critical roles in getting more women into senior leadership roles. First, directors can help potential leaders early. According to the study, an overwhelming majority of female CEOs have best-in-class levels of adaptability, curiosity, risk-taking, tolerance for ambiguity, and composure. These traits can be identified in people as early as in their 20s or 30s, Stevenson says. Directors can ensure their organizations are identifying female workers who have these traits and attracting such high-potential women.

Second, directors can mentor or sponsor up-and-coming female leaders. Many female CEOs didn’t set out to be the top boss. Indeed, 65% of the female CEOs Korn Ferry interviewed said they didn’t think they could be a CEO until someone else told them they could. Board directors can act as guides to mid-level female professionals, Stevenson says, by talking business with them (strategy, finance, revenue) and helping them build a strategic career plan. Without that type of guidance and encouragement, firms risk letting talented women drift.

Once women are closer to the C-suite, Stevenson says, directors can become critical sponsors by actively promoting them, managing career moves, and introducing them to new networks. The women CEOs who had sponsors appreciated the role they played, according to the Korn Ferry survey, even if the relationships sometimes included tough interactions and difficult criticism.

Finally, directors can help ensure women get operating experience. Having some operational experience is critical for all senior leaders, yet many high-talent women are often moved into leadership roles for noncore departments. All of the female CEOs who had operational experience found it to be pivotal, and the ones who didn’t thought it could have helped them be more prepared.