Women CEOs: Time for More Breakthroughs

A spate of top female leaders has departed recently. Can organizations better develop a new generation of female chiefs to step in?

It isn’t surprising these days to see any CEO leave, with everything from board activism to tech disruptions creating new pressures on the top job. Only now, with last week’s departure of Denise Morrison as CEO of Campbell Soup, suddenly a critical gender gap has just widened—with four of the country’s most prominent women chiefs leaving their positions in the last 10 months.

The individual circumstances of why each of the women left are unique, of course. But collectively the changes mean that fewer than 5% of the Fortune 500 companies are led by women. Experts say the statistic is a reminder that organizations need to develop a strong pipeline of female leaders. “Unless women become an equivalent or greater part of the CEO succession development pipeline, the occurrence of women CEOs will remain an anomaly versus a normal part of the leadership equation,” says Jane Stevenson, global leader for Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice and vice chairman of Board & CEO Services.

Surprisingly, many companies that have vowed to install more female leaders are still behind. Experts say organizations that are moving forward are identifying potential women leaders well before the C-suite. According to Korn Ferry research, female CEOs were more than twice as likely than middle managers to have higher levels of inspiration, talent-developing ability, team-building skills, courage, and the ability to manage ambiguity. Such competencies can be identified and developed in the early and middle stages of a woman’s career.

Another issue: organizations that don’t make it expressly known that women can excel there. When Korn Ferry interviewed 57 women who had led large US corporations, 65% of them said they didn’t realize that becoming CEO was a career option until someone else told them. Progressive firms are recalibrating how they view ambition. High-achieving women want to improve an organization’s performance, but an overwhelming number of them don’t view performance as the be-all, end-all reason to move up the corporate ladder, the study found. 

“Senior leadership and C-suite roles need to be described in a way that captures the challenge and opportunity they present, as well as what outcomes are possible and needed. This is what speaks to women’s sense of purpose and desire to contribute value and shape culture,” Stevenson says. 

In the end, a lot of firms that don’t have a strong female bench haven’t put enough emphasis on providing mentors or sponsors to women leaders, particularly early in careers. Without that, experts say, firms risk letting talented women drift where their curiosity and appetite for challenge take them. Often women in more senior positions need to hear this message again later, too, specifically affirming they have the talent to be CEO.