Six percent. That’s the number of Fortune 1000 CEOs who are women in 2017.
Even though I know all too well the challenges facing women who strive to reach the peak level of leadership, seeing that figure in black and white startled me. And while it’s the highest percentage of female CEOs, ever, we have to do better, faster.
So when I was asked to participate in a research project with the Korn Ferry Institute to explore what common qualities and experiences drive women CEOs, and develop a stronger pipeline of female leaders, I jumped at the chance. This groundbreaking study was supported by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation as part of its 100×25 initiative, which aims for 100 of the Fortune 500 to be led by female CEOs by 2025.
I was one of 57 current and former women CEOs involved in the study. We took part in meticulous interviews about defining experiences in our careers and personal lives, and completed an assessment on key personality traits—all to answer the question: “How’d we do it?” And did we share any commonalities that helped us reach the 6 percent?
Here’s what they found:
- We worked longer and harder to earn our spot as CEO. Not only were we on average four years older than our male counterparts when offered the top job, we had to serve in more roles, across more functions, companies and industries before reaching the top role than our male counterparts.
- We are highly motivated by achieving business results and a sense of purpose. Making a positive impact on our employees, community and world is just as important as hitting targets. And we care deeply about company culture.
- Four key traits are essential to our success. Courage, risk-taking, resilience and managing ambiguity are all common threads.
- We’re team players. Women CEOs aren’t afraid to rely on others to achieve results, as shown by a consistent appreciation of others, tendency to share credit across the board and lack of self-promotion.
- We didn’t dream of becoming CEO. Two-thirds of us didn’t have this goal or realize we could be CEO until someone encouraged us. Rather, we focused on a job well done instead of personal advancement.
- A STEM or financial background is an advantage. Nearly 60 percent of us had backgrounds in STEM (40 percent) or business, finance or economics (19 percent), allowing us to build credibility in core business functions. While I didn’t fall into this last category, I absolutely see the benefit in an ever-changing, global economic environment.
Now that we’ve found clear, consistent success factors among female CEOs, how do we use this information to open the doors for more? Korn Ferry suggests some steps companies can take to create and sustain a pipeline of talented, capable candidates:
- Identify potential early and give women an opportunity to broaden skills across core business functions.
- Illuminate the path to prominent roles by affirming potential and encouraging leadership possibilities along the way. Role models and mentors are key here.
- Take support to the next level through sponsors who offer hands-on career management. In this case, sponsors can—and should—be both male and female.
- Speak to the heart by communicating the meaningful contributions possible through advanced roles.
For me, becoming CEO wasn’t something I set out to be—not by a long shot. But as I navigated my career, I was exposed to all the core functions in homebuilding that eventually made me a good fit for the top job. I took the time and seized every opportunity, to know the business—a business I care about deeply—inside and out. And I had amazing mentors who believed in me.
I’ve said before how I never wanted to play “the woman card” in my career—that I wanted to credit my hard work and skill for getting me where I am. So for a long time, I downplayed my identity as a female CEO. But then I got a wake-up call about the very real need for women leaders to step up and encourage other women who aspire to leadership positions. I began to recognize that acknowledging my unique perspective as a woman didn’t diminish my success—just the opposite, in fact.
As I’ve shared more about my experience, and connected with like-minded women, I’ve felt empowered and fulfilled. And at this stage in my career, helping to usher in the next generation of women leaders, not only at Taylor Morrison—where 30 percent of our leaders are female as well as about 50 percent of our workforce—but in homebuilding and across industries, is something worth making time for.
Thanks to this study, we know just how far a little encouragement can take us. It’s my sincere hope that when it’s 2025, 6 percent will be a distant memory.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you surprised by the study? Do you think 100 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 is achievable by 2025?
This story originally ran on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/6-percent-how-get-more-women-top-sheryl-palmer/