Women CEOs Speak

Insights from the Korn Ferry’s landmark study of the women who’ve led America’s biggest companies. Plus, a podcast from the authors.

March to Equality: On International Women’s Day, Korn Ferry is republishing some of its key articles on gender diversity and developing women leaders.

Women CEOs’ ranks are still far below what they should be, and change continues to come slowly. But a landmark study by Korn Ferry has pinpointed the critical traits that are landing women in the rarefied world of becoming a CEO.

According to the study, women CEOs are slightly older than their male counterparts, in part because it takes them 30% longer than men to reach the corner office. But those who reached the top were often committed to making profound changes at their organizations.

The four-month research offers a rare glimpse at how female CEOs operate. Some 57 women CEOs—from 41 Fortune 1000 companies and 16 large privately held companies—were interviewed and given detailed assessments over the spring and summer. The work was supported by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation as part of its "100x25" initiative, which aims to support the hiring of 100 Fortune 500 women CEOs by 2025.

“Given there have been only 94 women CEOs ever in the Fortune 500, we were thrilled at the high participation rate,” said Jane Edison Stevenson, Korn Ferry’s global leader for CEO succession, who led the groundbreaking research initiative. “Rather than focusing on why more women are not CEOs, we focused on quantifying what their common success factors were: experiences, competencies, traits, and drivers that enabled them to become CEO of a major company. Understanding these remarkably consistent key indicators of women’s potential and, in turn, redefining needed organizational impact factors, can help change the game for both organizations and the women who will lead them.”

As part of the interviews, the CEOs were asked to discuss a range of topics, including their personal histories, careers, and key personality traits and drivers. Many also completed Korn Ferry’s own executive assessment.

In all, six key insights emerged with surprising consistency across all the women CEOs who participated in the study: 

1. These CEOs worked harder and longer to get to the top.

The women CEOs were an average of four years older than their male counterparts, and worked in a slightly greater number of roles, functions, companies, and industries.

2. They were driven by both a sense of purpose and achieving business results.

More than two-thirds of the women interviewed and assessed said they were motivated by a sense of purpose and their belief that their company could have a positive impact on the community, employees, and the world around them. Nearly a quarter pointed to creating a positive culture as one of their proudest accomplishments.

3. Differentiating traits sustained the women’s success on the road to CEO.

Defining traits and competencies that emerged time and again in the research included courage, risk-taking, resilience, agility, and managing ambiguity.

4. They were more likely to engage the power of teams.

Women CEOs scored significantly higher than the benchmark group on humility—indicative of a consistent lack of self-promotion, an expressed appreciation for others, and a tendency to share the credit—and were more likely to leverage others to achieve desired results.

5. Despite evident potential, the women didn’t generally set their sights on becoming CEO.

Two-thirds of the women said they never realized they could become CEO until a boss or mentor encouraged them, and instead focused on hitting business targets and seeking new challenges rather than on their personal career advancement.

6. The women shared STEM and financial backgrounds that served as a springboard.

Early in their careers, nearly 60% of the women had demonstrable expertise in either STEM (40%) or business/finance/economics (19%)—all fields where they could prove themselves with precise, definable outcomes, and also ones crucial to success of the business.

The research report recommends clear steps that companies can take to accelerate and maintain a steady supply of women CEO candidates, including early identification of high-potential talent and communicating opportunities in terms that play to women’s strengths and engage specific drivers. Mentors also play an indispensable role, affirming potential to encourage more women to strive to become CEOs and, later on, sponsors can actively help advance women’s careers. These recommendations are currently being applied to design specific programs for a list of beta companies eager to produce more women leaders.

“One thing that struck us during the research was how closely the women CEOs’ traits aligned with those of the modern leaders that boards are now seeking: courageous and able to successfully navigate uncertainty and ambiguity in a constantly shifting environment,” said Evelyn Orr, chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute and a leader of the research initiative. “While The Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘100x25’ initiative is an ambitious one, we are convinced that, as more organizations experience the positive business results of tapping women in the CEO pipeline, additional companies will follow suit.”