- Research indicates that there’s a positive correlation between women in corporate leadership positions and a firm’s profitability, and yet women are still an endangered species when it comes to top executive roles.
- Business Insider spoke with Jane Stevenson, the global leader for CEO succession and vice chairman of board and CEO services at the consulting and executive search firm Korn Ferry.
- Stevenson has 34 years of experience in leadership advisory work serving Fortune 500 clients and high-growth companies, and spearheaded “Women CEOs Speak.”
- She shared her biggest tips for women looking to break through the glass ceiling, which include seeking out quantifiable outcome roles where your work and output can be measured and gaining the attention of sponsors.
- She also suggests getting “profit and loss” leadership experience and painting for others a picture of how you can lead the future of the organization based on your past experience.
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Despite research that indicates there’s a positive correlation between women in corporate leadership positions and a firm’s profitability, women are still an endangered species when it comes to top executive roles — especially in male-dominated fields such as finance and technology.
While June 2019’s Fortune 500 list saw a record 33 female CEOs at the helm of the highest-grossing firms — and that figure represents a considerable jump from 2018’s total of 24 — it is still just 6.6% of the whole.
Jane Stevenson, the global leader for CEO succession and vice chairman of board and CEO services at the consulting and executive search firm Korn Ferry, regularly serves Fortune 500 clients and high-growth companies on C-suite succession, top team effectiveness, and innovation leadership issues. She’s also been acknowledged by BusinessWeek as one of the “100 Most Influential Search Consultants in the World.”
With 34 years of experience in leadership advisory work across leadership development and search, Stevenson spearheaded “Women CEOs Speak.” This landmark study focused on 57 women who’ve run the nation’s largest companies and were interviewed as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100×25 initiative, which is striving for female CEOs to lead 100 of the Fortune 500 by the year 2025.
One of the Women CEOs Speak study findings that shocked Stevenson most, she told Business Insider, was learning that 65% percent of the women appointed had no idea that they were capable of or even interested in becoming a CEO.
“They had to be told at a senior executive level,” said Stevenson. “It was not in their mindset; it wasn’t even in their thought process. As a mom with a daughter, that was fundamental, and a lot of that is because we haven’t seen a lot of that in our personal observation perspective.”
Creating transparency around what that path to the top looks like is critical, she said, because it is how “lights get turned on” and women begin seeing a clear way to move toward and into those roles.
“Companies need to build a gender diverse, high-potential pipeline not just because it’s socially a good thing to do, but because it’s good business and it’s great for financial returns,” she said, pointing to the Peterson Institute for International Economics study that found that companies with at least 30% female leaders had net profit margins up to six percentage points higher than companies with no women in the top ranks.
Business Insider asked Stevenson to share what it takes to shatter the glass ceiling in male-dominated fields. Here are her top strategies:
Having the ability to show indisputable results helps women establish a foundation of expertise.
“What we found in the [Women CEOs Speak] study was engineering and financial roles are ideal because they’re in the guts of the business,” said Stevenson. “So getting those kinds of roles where you’ve got quantifiable outcomes early is a great foundation. I think 65% of the CEOs had engineering or financial early experience.”
Stevenson pointed to Mary Barra, chair and CEO of General Motors Company, and Patti Poppe, president and CEO of CMS Energy, as examples of women who took on positions that allowed them to prove they had both the ability and understanding to not only get the job done but to thrive.
“Both of them early on moved into plant management roles where they had an operating accountability [and] where they had top line and bottom line accountability, which is fundamental,” Stevenson explained.
Metrics don’t lie. If you position yourself at the core of the business and achieve positive results you can quantify, you set yourself up for future success.
“What it proves is you understand the business,” said Stevenson. “If you start with people leadership and you don’t have the guts of the business and the fundamentals of the business, then you get stuck at a certain level. If you start in early roles, empirical roles, where you can say, ‘It was this, and we did that’ — you’re talking metric-driven, guts-of-the-business roles — then you broaden from there. Everybody knows you understand the business, then you show that you can also create results through people.”
Establishing a reputation of driving results and leading effective teams helps you earn the respect of your peers and your boss. This is critical, Stevenson pointed out, because you never know who is watching and can pave the way for your future success based on your past achievements.
Stevenson recommended taking on challenges that others might shy away from and “[getting] comfortable being uncomfortable” as a way to stand out from the crowd. Additionally, if you have a sponsor in mind, make sure you’re going out of your way for them so you’re making yourself valuable to them.
“I’ve used the saying, ‘It’s not what you know or who you know, it’s who knows what you know,'” she said. “The funny thing about sponsors is you don’t always know who your sponsor is. It’s not like you pick one. A sponsor is someone who’s in a meeting where a power decision is being made and puts your name forward in a way that makes people think, ‘That’s a good idea. I hadn’t thought of that.’ That’s at least half of the battle.”
The credibility of sponsors, who are able to sway others, has been an advantage men have long enjoyed, Stevenson noted. But now, for the first time, women are beginning to reap the benefits as more people having those conversations recognize that it’s “just good business to have gender diverse leadership,” she said.
When working with boards as they look at the consideration set for a CEO role, Stevenson said she frequently encounters the following scenario.
“A large number of times people say, ‘Wow, so-and-so has the best aptitude and leadership skills, but hasn’t had some of the critical experiences’— primarily meaning the not large P&L [profit and loss] roles — ‘and so it’s just too risky to make that appointment,'” she explained.
Responsibilities of those in a P&L leadership role include monitoring income after expenses for a department or the entire organization. Someone in a P&L leadership position has the power to initiate or eliminate programs based on their return on investment, which essentially makes them responsible for the fiscal success or failure of that department or company.
Stevenson said that women looking to be considered for CEO or executive roles must have those critical responsibilities to build from.
“Identifying P&L leadership capability early on is essential,” noted Stevenson. “Make sure women have that experience early on to be cultivated and developed or knocked out, so you know what you’ve got.”
How can women go about securing one of these important positions? Stevenson suggested being clear about your capability and interest in running a P&L.
“Gain the sponsorship and confidence of key leaders who will have a voice in ‘rooms of power,'” she added.
As an example, Stevenson shared the story of a key C-suite leader who had the sponsorship of some board members and the CEO and was able to take on her first major P&L role. She’s now successfully ascending the rungs of the corporate ladder.
“She had to be willing to move away from C-suite and being a direct report to the CEO,” Stevenson said. “But she is now running [an over] $2 billion business and has managed a major turnaround, which established huge credibility, and she is loving it. She is now is in the pipeline for CEO succession and viable for other major company board roles.”
When seeking a new role, women tend to have a reticence to speak about their accomplishments. Stevenson said it’s not enough to think, “I did this in the past. Can’t they see that I could do that in future?” Instead, women need to create a framework for articulating what’s possible under their leadership.
This requires being aware of your business’s key strategic priorities and connecting your capabilities and track record to what will change the game for the company, she noted.
“In other words, painting the path of what you’ve done in a way that helps people see what that brings as possibility for your future role is really pivotal, and that is another silver bullet. It makes a huge difference,” she explained.
While seeing more women in top-level roles isn’t something that can or will happen overnight — “It takes a decade,” Stevenson noted, “This isn’t something that happens in a year or two” — she said she believed as more companies commit to creating gender-diverse pipelines, women who previously felt they’d “topped out” will be able to see a clear path to CEO and board positions.
“If there’s a magic formula it is to be great and connect with people in ways that help them and help you,” she said. “Because we found that when women get these roles it’s a win-win.”