It should be an easy question, right?
"The gender imbalance among CEOs at ASX200 companies remained stubbornly wide.”
But to answer it, you first need to look at the gender break down of executives currently in C-suite roles and the pipeline of talent coming through the management ranks.
Are there many women? Do these women run a business unit? How many women in your organisation would rush towards an opportunity to advance to the top role?
If, when you do the sums on your leadership pipeline, less than 50 per cent of the potential candidates are women, or the women at the mid-point of their careers aren’t tracking upwards, there is very little chance the next CEO will be female.
Earlier this year, Korn Ferry and the Australian Institute of Company Directors set out to document the pathways women take to become CEO.
Few women had completed the journey and the gender imbalance among CEOs at ASX200 companies remained stubbornly wide.
Who run the world?
The objective of the research was to learn from those who had transcended the status quo and made it to the top and to learn what they did differently to navigate the challenging pathway to CEO.
The goal was to illuminate and help remove barriers to executive roles and future board roles for women.
The report includes interviews with 21 current and former Australian female CEOs as well as psychometric assessments. It goes beyond counting female heads to diving deeply into the factors which need to come together to enable a successful career.
These CEOs provided deep insight into the experiences and attributes that supported – and inhibited – their pathways to the top.
Female CEOs are attracted to collaborative leadership more than power and desire for status or influence. Rather than focusing on climbing the ladder, women are driven by intrinsic interest in their work, a sense of purpose and a desire to lead people in a positive manner.
In fact, while close to half the participants said they always wanted to be CEO, an equal number said they had never aspired to the role but were drafted into it by others who recognised their potential.
These findings have ramifications for how organisations regulate talent identification.
Those responsible for developing talent need to grasp there are multiple starting points for leaders and what motivates women may differ from a ‘traditional’ profile.
Organisations also need to be clear about identifying potential leaders and let everyone, especially women, know they are on track to senior leadership.
There is an argument for reframing executive leadership and the CEO role to appeal to more women. What drove the CEO participants was a desire to make an impact and build a positive culture. By describing the jobs which prepare future CEOs in those terms - rather than as a list of qualifications, responsibilities and scope of authority - fewer women will opt out at the senior executive level.
I personally would like to see a deeper focus on the CEO feeder pool.
Women are underrepresented in line management roles in Australia and these are the positions which most often lead to being CEO. A clearly beneficial step is to attract more women into profit-and-loss roles earlier to ensure they get that crucial experience and positioning.
The report found “if women aren’t on the talent radar, it’s the radar that needs to change”.
It’s time to look deeper and wider to develop female leaders. Intelligent, capable, collaborative and courageous women are in workplaces, often hiding in plain sight.
Organisations need to look harder and use a broader lens to find them - the future of leadership depends on it.
Recommendations for women close to CEO level