For Women Leaders, the Need for a Stronger Pipeline

A new Korn Ferry study of top female CEOs reaffirms that succession efforts still need some work. 

For twenty years, the company ran mentorship programs, identified and promoted talented women early and often, and offered numerous trainings. And yet the only women in the C-suite were in marketing and HR, both pivotal but non-P&L roles. Why? 

Corporations across the country are asking themselves this same question—as is a new study of 21 female CEOs by Korn Ferry. Experts say that the systemic change necessary to consistently feed C-suites with diverse candidates has not yet happened. “Female CEOs are still fortuitous appointments based on a lucky break,” says Jane Stevenson, vice chair of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice. “That’s very different than sustainable pipelines.” 

Gender diversity in leadership is complicated by factors beyond the reach of organizations. For example, a new meta-analysis of 60 years of workplace research found that many women simply don’t want to be leaders—which organizations can of course somewhat counteract by making leadership roles more attractive to them. And there’s also the detail that becoming a female leader can put women at odds with societal norms. “Society still does not support men who are the trailing spouse, so that works against organizations,” says Tanya van Biesen, managing partner of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice for Canada. 

But organizations continue to hold most of the power in determining the diversity of their own C-suites. Much of that control is shared between leaders and HR, with the latter sustaining and facilitating inclusive, systemic practices to promote and identify talent early, says Alina Polonskaia, a global leader in the DE&I Consulting practice at Korn Ferry. “It’s not just promoting women, but putting them clearly on succession tracks,” she says. The report on female CEOs echoes this, with 40% of respondents emphasizing the need for companies to talk early with employees about their career potential and provide programs that support leadership career paths. 

Stevenson says that in practice, companies tend to have two types of high-performing female leadership candidates: high performers (but not necessarily highest potential) leaders who have had the right experiences, and superstar innate-capability leaders who have not had the right experiences. “It’s not always combined in one person,” she says. At most companies, future CEOs need to be in sequenced global rotations across P&L leadership and key enterprise roles starting 10 to 15 years before they enter the C-suite. These key roles, especially broad general-management jobs, are often skipped over—leading to the “superstar capabilities but lacking experienced candidates” problem.

Stevenson says that future CEOs typically need leadership experience in specific positions: operating profit-and-loss roles, functional enterprise-wide roles, and geographic leadership roles that allow rising stars to see from a broad lens. “That triad is generally what needs to be developed at the top of the house,” says Stevenson, who encourages horizontal as well as vertical experiences. Early board seats are also important, an idea echoed by 70% of the female leaders in the CEO report. 

Few corporate pipelines are dependably hitting all of those marks, and fewer still include women at every stage of their careers. At the terminus of the pipeline, standards and policies for ascension should be clear and transparent, say experts. “Succession processes are typically pretty murky,” says Polonskaia. “They often need to be rethought and potentially redesigned.”