When organisations are in dire straits they turn to women with a reputation for hard work and problem solving to take over, according to Katie Lahey, Korn Ferry’s executive chairman, Australasia.
Lahey was commenting on a study released by Korn Ferry and the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) entitled Australian Women CEOs Speak.
The research examines the careers of current and recent women CEOs in Australia and highlights common success factors on the road to becoming CEO.
“It was interesting to learn that close to half (43%) of the women were handed a ‘hospital pass’ for their first CEO role,” said Lahey.
“With just 14 women in CEO roles in the ASX 200, and a weak pipeline of women in c-suite roles, we sought to better understand why more women aren’t in key leadership positions and the roadblocks to women’s advancement to reaching the position of CEO.
“We spoke to those who have confronted a similar rocky pathway as other women, yet managed their way to the top.”
Moreover, the research revealed the importance of board experience for women in the pipeline to CEO.
In particular, experience on boards, both corporate, non-profit and a relationship with their own board, contributed to the women’s breadth of experience and confidence before becoming CEO.
Elizabeth Proust, chairman of AICD, added that exposure to boards is key to the development of future CEOs.
“It is pleasing to learn that most women described their relationship with their own company’s board as positive and supportive,” said Proust.
“A strong pipeline of female leaders for executive roles leads to a strong pipeline of future female non-executive directors.
“I would encourage women who aspire to the CEO role to gain exposure to boards during their career and encourage directors to get actively involved in mentoring and sponsoring the next generation of female leaders.”
The study also revealed that most of the women had reached the top without any formal coaching, mentoring or sponsorship.
“Women aren’t motivated by power or status, they are mainly motivated by making a difference,” said Lahey.
“Understanding just this one factor, will change how women are mentored and developed
“Women may be ambitious but not self-promoting. Mentors and sponsors need to be aware of this when looking at future leaders in their organisations.”
Ten insights into the leadership drivers of Australian women CEOs
1. Nimble and collaborative leadership
Australia’s CEO women show particular strength in how they relate to people, and their effectiveness appears to extend from their candid and trusting work with teams. They are also exceptionally at ease with unsettled situations. They are highly agile, ready and able to adapt, and will try new approaches as needed.
They are decidedly not drawn to power or status, and many didn’t really want to be CEO. But they were attracted by a sense of purpose—often related to improving the organisation for the sake of the people in it.
3. Confidence and self-doubt
Despite track records of success, one-third of the women said they’d experienced periods of serious self-doubt. On a psychometric assessment, the female CEOs also scored themselves below-benchmark levels on Confidence and Assertiveness.
4. Career goals
Of 16 interviewees, 43% said that they never wanted to be CEO at all. About the same number set their sights specifically on becoming a CEO, some as early as their 20s. The rest fell somewhere in between.
5. Professional path
Although about half of the CEOs were operating with clear career goals by mid-career, 75% said their professional life had periods of ‘improvisation.’ Some had almost entirely unplanned careers and moved into new positions driven by a desire to learn.
6. Little mentoring
Eleven of the 21 interviewees spoke of mentoring relationships, though some of those were informal interactions that might include a single piece of memorable advice. Only two women mentioned having consistent mentoring throughout their careers.
7. Appointment during a crisis
Nine of the 21 women we interviewed were given a 'hospital pass'—handed power when the risk of injury to their personal career was high. For women, this phenomenon is a corollary to the glass ceiling called the ‘glass cliff.’
8. Going global
Experience in international markets is a key feature of CEO women’s careers in Australia. 70% of those interviewed described significant global and multicultural experience.
9. Work and family
Half the women CEOs with children had partners who were the primary family caregiver for some or all of the time the women were building their career.
10. Higher education
Most of the CEO women held either honours or postgraduate qualifications. Almost half had postgraduate qualifications in a business-related field