It was an honour to serve as a judge at this year’s Women of Influence Awards at The American Chamber of Commerce, in Hong Kong. This is the third consecutive year I’ve served in the awards and it provides me an opportunity to reflect on women’s progress in business leadership. We received an impressive range of nominees—I was delighted to see quite a few Fortune 500 CEOs. But this success only paints part of the picture. There are 11 more female CEOs globally this year than last year, an increase from 21 to 32: However they head only 6.4% of Fortune 500 companies.

The reasons behind women’s compromised career progression are reportedly many and varied: Continued bias; lack of sufficient opportunities; professional jealousy; the ‘bossy’ tag; results agility deficits; and men remaining threatened by assertive women. Yet many women work in organisations with extensive diversity policies and guidelines against discrimination, with many men who genuinely believe women should advance.

Korn Ferry is determined to accelerate the pace of women achieving the top roles in business by taking a bold, action-focused approach to unlock how women who are CEOs achieved their success. In February we partnered with The Rockefeller Foundation on the 100x25 campaign and our mission is to advance 100 women to the highest roles at Fortune 500 companies by 2025.

Through their Diversity and Inclusion program, the Rockefeller Foundation is setting the benchmark globally for working women with initiatives such as a fully equipped Mother’s Room and a Diversity Tool Kit for managers and staff on the company intranet. The goal of our research with the Rockefeller Foundation is to provide research-based recommendations to organisations to help women succeed. For the first time in history, we have enough female CEOs to conduct a statistically valid study.

Conducting 57 candid one-on-one interviews with 38 current and 19 past CEOs—along with psychometric assessments with two thirds of participants—we’ve uncovered the pivotal experiences, competencies, traits and drivers that enabled 57 women to run the world’s major companies. It’s a ground-breaking project sure to transform those organisations struggling to achieve gender equity goals and the superior financial returns—otherwise known as womenomics—possible when businesses diversify their management.

Six insights emerged with startling consistency across our interviews:

  1. Female CEOs worked harder and longer to get to the top. Overall the women accrued more diverse experience by working in a greater average number of senior roles, functions, companies and industries.
  2. They were driven by both a sense of purpose and driving business results
  3. The traits that propelled women to CEO were: courage, risk-taking, resilience, agility, drive and managing ambiguity.
  4. These women harnessed the power of teams
  5. Two-thirds said they didn’t realise they could be CEO until someone told them they could do it
  6. They used STEM or financial backgrounds to achieve and quantify results with precision

Synthesizing this data with a further 1,642 female professionals in our database—including 165 senior executives and 71 CEOs—we recommend 6 steps to build and sustain a pipeline of female CEOs:

  1. Identify potential early. Recognise persistence, need for achievement, curiosity, focus, assertiveness, risk-taking and empathy as traits of a potential CEO. And make sure you let her know she can do it.
  2. Focus on the feeder pool. Entice more women into profit-and-loss roles earlier. Multiple studies indicate 90% of new CEOs come directly from roles with line responsibility, defined as having profit-and-loss or direct client responsibility.
  3. Talk about potential roles in ways that motivate. Engage her sense of purpose and desire to contribute value and shape culture.
  4. Build a true meritocracy. Intentionally disrupt “survival of the fittest” environments and remove the gender filter to stimulate diversity.
  5. Map the journey to CEO. Design a program that includes sponsors, mentors and role models. Help her see a realistic path.
  6. Ensure sponsors near the top. When women reach the senior executive level, swap mentors for sponsors, who will manage career moves and promote her internally as a potential CEO.
  7. Beware the “glass cliff.” Organisations often hire women to lead organisations facing crisis or likely to fail. If she does fail, help her regain her footing. Otherwise you’ll lose precious talent.

Our vision of building a global pipeline of female CEOs is ambitious—but achievable. We’ve delved into the traits, drivers, competencies and pivotal experiences of the most elite female leaders in the world. The next step is to share our insights with Fortune 500 companies to enable them to identify and pave the road for high-potential female executives. Currently, one half of the world’s population is precluded from achieving their true potential in the workplace—and studies show diversified management garners above average financial returns.

We can’t do it alone. Accelerating more women into CEO roles globally requires all organisations to rethink their game plan. And when they do, we’ll easily achieve the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100x25 challenge together.

For the complete study, "Women CEOs Speak" visit:

This is Part One in a three-part series discussing how Korn Ferry champions and advocates female leadership.

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About the contributor

May Knight is the President of Korn Ferry’s advisory business in Asia Pacific. She has almost 30 years of experience in operational and consulting roles in Asia and Europe. Her expertise encompasses deploying business and operating strategies and structures, developing business models and delivery blueprints, re-structuring organisations & developing leadership teams and establishing compensation structures to support the realisation of business strategies.

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