‘My Dad Gave Me No Excuses’

As Father's Day approaches, Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr offers a rare glimpse into the role fathers played in boosting today’s female CEOs.

At a time when the world needs strong leadership, it’s all hands on deck. Yet data shows that women continue to be an under-leveraged resource. In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, will explore the intersection of career, relationships, and gender and the impact on families, organizations, and society.

I remember the day my daughter became self-conscious in front of the camera. Her normally crazy, carefree demeanor replaced by awareness of herself as the object of a photograph. She was probably four years old. My heart sank a bit, knowing that her awareness of others’ perceptions could be the beginning of holding back, taking fewer risks, careful choices replacing joyful abandon.

Many studies have shown a plummet in girls’ confidence in early adolescence. This may be linked to self-consciousness, perfectionism, the need to please others, or hyper-awareness that leads to cautiousness. How do we stop this downward spiral? Encourage risk-taking and failure. And who can help with that? Dads.

In our “Women CEOs Speak” research, a landmark study where Korn Ferry exclusively interviewed and assessed 57 of the top female leaders globally, we learned about the early, formative experiences of women who went on to become CEOs. Many of these women talked about the important role their dads played in their young lives. Their dads encouraged them to take risks and supported them through disappointments. You might say that their dads were their first mentors or sponsors: seeing their potential, setting high expectations, coaching them through a setback, pushing them to try something new.

Seeing potential and saying something helped these young women believe in themselves:

“I grew up believing, like from my father the construction worker, that I could do anything. I had no gender affliction. I could do anything, and he’s the one who inspired me to go to law school. Only because he bought me a book, which I have today on my desk, Our Courts in the Law.”

Being held to high standards imparted core values like hard work, setting goals, and being resourceful:

“You know my dad gave me no excuses. You know when I tell my team no excuses. We should be able to sell coats in the sunshine or something, so no excuses. Be creative. Figure out a way!”

“I was raised in a household that expected a lot. High expectations. High accomplishments. And my father was probably the one that I would watch and that I aligned mostly with. A very accomplished man, an administrator. And I remember he would work endlessly. I remember coming home at night, he would work a lot, and that whole way of organizing your life and thinking about your life is what I then gravitated towards and then it became kind of me.”

Understanding that love and respect would not disappear when they failed, gave them permission to take risks and never give up:

“I was devastated when I didn’t make cheerleader, and my dad said, ‘OK, what are you going to do? Is there anything else you want to go out for?’ He was talking through life’s issues in a ‘don’t give up’ way—‘use it as a challenge to go back at it’—and so those are philosophies my sister and I carry through, in different ways.”

Being treated equally in their families meant seeing career paths open up that they previously hadn’t considered:

“I had the privilege of going down to [the university] for Women and Engineering Career Day. Really, until then I thought engineering sounded horrible and boring. I was good at math and science but thought that sounded boring until I went and met these amazing women, so [that] definitely—my father insisting that we go down there—made a difference.”

“Both my mom and dad were very supportive and eager to push us into math and science... Mom was a nurse and always wished she had more technical skills. Dad was a mechanical engineer, so being an engineer was kind of what his choice was.”

The women we interviewed talked about being treated equally in their families. Boys and girls shared the same chores, both were expected to go to college, both were expected to speak their minds at the dinner table. For men who are pro gender equality and want to know what you can do: Start at home with your daughters. They will see themselves through your eyes and grow to believe in themselves like you do.