As we welcome in the Lunar New Year, making resolutions and considering opportunities, I find myself reflecting on the events of the past year. Serving as a judge at the AMCHAM Women of Influence Awards was a highlight for me, and one particular moment stood out in my mind.

At the pre-award cocktail party, I spoke with the nominees about their leadership experiences and biggest challenges. These nominees—many of whom are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—attributed their success to the breadth of functional experience gained early in their careers. They acquired experience in roles such as sales, marketing and finance which allowed them to gain a better perspective on business matters and to make more effective decisions that drive business impact. They also devoted years to becoming experts in their fields; building credibility and forging a proven track record along the way.

Defining what is required of successful women leaders

All the women leaders I met share a drive for advancement that enables them to persevere when the road gets rocky. It is at this point—in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges—the best leaders recognise the opportunity to excel and deliver outstanding results.

According to a recent Korn Ferry research, Talent for Tomorrow: Four Secrets for HR Agility in an Uncertain World, the difference between those who succeed and those who do not during volatile times, can be defined as having learning agility. Learning agility encapsulates an individual’s ability and passion to quickly study a new problem and use their own learning process to gain deep understanding before making a decision. Simply put, learning agility can be described as “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do”.


Particularly in today’s VUCA environment, three megatrends are driving extensive disruptions to businesses and fuelling the need for learning agility:

  1. The rise of a mobile generation of consumers.
  2. The advent of digitalisation in businesses.
  3. The opportunities for disintermediation.

Leading in the face of change today, many women leaders are continually challenging themselves with increasingly difficult goals to build career mastery. According to our recent Women CEOs Speak study, women CEOs do not just prefer challenging work assignments, they seek them out. This challenge-centric mindset, such as taking on profit-and-loss responsibilities, is one way to sharpen their results agility competency. Through building a reputation for driving performance and delivering results, over time, women leaders can slowly but surely, reduce barriers to leadership roles such as unconscious biasness and second-generation gender biasness.

In my interaction with the award nominees, I found that they all share a common factor to learning agility – results agility. At Korn Ferry, we define results agility as a leader’s propensity to deliver outstanding results in new and ambiguous situations. It is also the experience of being energised by different, tough assignments and overcoming obstacles to achieve stretch work objectives. It also includes the enjoyment of being judged against external standards of achievement.

What every business leaders should know

In today’s disruptive business landscape, organisations need leaders who are not afraid to try new ways of working while delivering results the first time. When leaders in an organisation exhibit these qualities, enterprise agility and commercial success will follow.

Women leaders who constantly seek out challenges and have a strong results agility competency are poised to reap competitive advantages. Business leaders can support these high potential women develop their results agility competency by:

  1. Assigning a mentor to guide them through the learning stage.
  2. Supporting them through their first 100 days in the new role and providing them the support to achieve success.
  3. Giving them space to operate, test and learn their new responsibilities.

Together with The Rockefeller Foundation, Korn Ferry and organisations can support women in developing this competency and achieving the goal of advancing 100 women to leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies by 2025 – as set out in the 100x25 campaign that aims to achieve gender equality in the workplace and bring more women into the C-suite.


This is Part Two 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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