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Study finds nimble and agile leadership informs behaviour of women CEOs

A recent study of the habits of Australian women CEOs reveals the road to the top is haphazard for many female leaders.

The study released by Korn Ferry and the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD),  Australian Women CEOs Speak, examines the careers of current and recent women CEOs in Australia and highlights the shared factors to success.

While the women surveyed represent some of our most elite corporations, surprisingly they ranked themselves below average when it came to confidence with one third of the women CEOs suggesting they had experienced significant periods of self-doubt. Many of the women admitted to a lack of mentoring in their career and almost one in two reported being given their role when the company was in crisis, and the risk of failure was high.

Katie Lahey, Executive Chairman Korn Ferry said the company undertook the study in order to identify the inhibitors to women attaining CEO roles in Australia.

“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,” said Lahey.

Lahey noted the high proportion of women given a CEO role when a company was on the brink, suggesting women’s ability to problem solve was a key driver.

“It was interesting to learn that close to half (43%) of the women were handed a ‘hospital pass’ for their first CEO role. When organisations are in dire straits they turn to women with a reputation for hard work and problem solving to take over.” Lahey added.

Experience in board positions was also seen as a significant precursor to a woman’s successful appointment to a CEO position, allowing them to develop confidence and experience prior to gaining the top job.

“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 Elizabeth Proust AO FAICD, Chairman of AICD.

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,” concluded Proust.

Lahey suggested the motivation for women to accept a CEO role was different to that of their male counterparts. She hoped the report will assist in informing future development programs for women by including factors that allow women to thrive in leadership positions. The research suggested ‘power’ had very little to do with a woman’s motivation but rather the ability to make a difference was a major rationale for women pursuing CEO roles.

“Understanding just this one factor, will change how women are mentored and developed,” Lahey said.

The 10 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.

2. Motivation

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.





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