CEO Insights: female entrepreneurial talent

Organizations may want to tap female entrepreneur talent because they show strengths most sought after in 21st century leaders. Women in leadership.

Female entrepreneurs have the leadership qualities that organizations should value the most, reveals a new survey jointly produced by the Korn Ferry Institute and Springboard Enterprises, a network of founders of high growth companies led by women. Organizations may want to consider tapping into the talent pool of female entrepreneurs, who score higher on key leadership attributes than either male or female executives holding C-level and VP positions.

The Korn Ferry/Springboard survey assessed the “agile learning” abilities of participants. Agile learning is defined by Korn Ferry as the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and to subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions. Leaders who are agile learners thrive in ambiguous situations and excel at working through complex problems. Agile learning is known to predict leadership success because these are the types of challenges leaders are encountering on a day-to-day basis. 

In the survey, 183 female entrepreneurs participated, and their scores were compared to those of 306 C-level executives. The majority of the female entrepreneurs were headquartered in the United States (90%) and were mainly from these industry sectors: health care/bioscience (33%), technology (22%), and media/entertainment (9%).

The survey addressed three personal attributes known to contribute to leadership success:

  • Tolerance of ambiguity—Comfort with vague or contradictory information and the ability to make decisions when things are uncertain.
  • Intellectual curiosity—The extent to which a person is likely to tackle problems in a novel way, see patterns in complex information, and pursue deep understanding.
  • Emotional intelligence—The ability to influence, collaborate, and communicate effectively with others and use interpersonal awareness in a way that advances collective goals.

Female entrepreneurs rate highly on all three attributes, but particularly on the first two.

Tolerance of ambiguity.

Female entrepreneurs were five times more likely to be top scorers in ambiguity tolerance than their corporate counterparts. On average, Springboard entrepreneurs scored in the 70th percentile, compared with male C-level executives’ scores at the 53rd percentile and female C-levels’ scores at the 40th percentile.

Springboard’s female entrepreneurs who uniformly score high in Korn Ferry’s learning agility measurement would be key influencers in corporate settings where “facing highly disruptive business challenges has become the norm,” said Kay Koplovitz, chairman of Springboard Enterprises and founder of USA Networks.

This means that female entrepreneurs are more likely to exhibit qualities indicative of people who thrive in ambiguity and change: they strive for continuous improvement, see risk taking as opportunities for learning, can take the pressure of change, and are comfortable leading change.

Intellectual curiosity.

The female entrepreneurs surveyed were twice as likely to be top scorers (above the 80th percentile) in intellectual curiosity.

This means they excel at thinking through complex problems. They question conventional wisdom, seek the root causes of problems, and can draw parallels and contrasts across experiences.

Female entrepreneurs can be the needed catalyst to lead companies through periods of uncertainty. Their unique skill set is ideal for solving complex problems while remaining flexible in pursuing opportunities in unpredictable markets.

“Highly learning agile leaders are in great demand by companies interested in innovation and staying ahead of the curve. In fact, the qualities agile leaders share such as curiosity, ambiguity tolerance, and emotional intelligence are predictors of leadership success,” said Guangrong Dai, senior director of research at the Korn Ferry Institute.

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