Sponsors Play Key Role in Advancing Women to CEO Level

By Kathy Gurchiek Nov 29, 2017
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Women who are chief executive officers typically did not see themselves in that role until a supervisor, mentor or sponsor urged them to seek the position. 


That is among the key findings of Women CEOs Speak, a new report from the Korn Ferry Institute based on extensive interviews with 57 current and former female chief executives in the U.S. and psychometric assessments with two-thirds of the study participants.

Korn Ferry conducted the study to learn what qualities drive the women who make up 6.4 percent of U.S. CEOs. It conducted its research from February to July 2017 with 38 current and 19 former CEOs. Among participants, 23 are or were at Fortune 500 companies, 18 are or were at Fortune 1000 companies, and 16 are or were at privately held companies.

The findings point to the importance of sponsors and mentors in preparing women for leadership positions.

Mentors, Sponsors Critical to Success 

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the participants did not realize they could be CEO "until someone tapped them on the shoulder and said, 'you have potential here,' " said Stuart Crandell, senior vice president at Korn Ferry Institute in Minneapolis.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Develop a Diversity and Inclusion Initiative]

Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer at Korn Ferry Institute, observed that it's critical for women to have mentors to provide encouragement, feedback and guidance, and to have sponsors who can open career doors. She was among the panelists Nov. 15 discussing the findings at The Conference Board Fall Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.

Having a sponsor early in her career was critical to her own success, said panelist Alicia Boler Davis, executive vice president of global manufacturing and labor relations at General Motors in Detroit.

Her long-term goal was to be a plant manager—a goal she thought would take 30 years to reach. She attained it by the time she was in her 30s, thanks to the encouragement and advice of her sponsor.

"He would always come to me with an opportunity much sooner than I thought I was ready, and [that] helped to build my confidence," Boler Davis said. "I learned you are going to make mistakes. It's how you are going to recover when those setbacks happen" that exemplifies leadership. And she didn't lose her sponsor's support when she did make mistakes, she added.

Boler Davis obtained sponsors in other areas of the business as her career advanced. With their encouragement, she developed transferrable skills beyond manufacturing that broadened her expertise. Ultimately, the CEO asked her to run the global manufacturing operations—a move she had never considered but "as we talked, it made sense for me and the company." In 2013, Fortune magazine named her as one of the 10 most powerful women in the automotive industry.

Her experience—and those of the women in the study—also underscored the importance of identifying women with leadership potential sooner rather than later in their careers.

Female CEOs in the study, on average, were four years older than their male counterparts—women were on average 50.9 years old versus men who were on average 45.8 years old.

"[Organizations] shouldn't be waiting until women are in their 30s or 40s … They should be identifying women in their 20s, perhaps for their first leadership role," Crandell said. "If you wait too long, they will lose out on many of the [experiences] that are needed to become a CEO, things like operational experience."

Women also worked in a slightly greater number of roles, functions, companies and industries before becoming CEOs.

"Women were doing one additional lap around the track … to get to the same place as their male colleagues," Orr said.

"Men tend to be savvier about what [they] need to do to get ahead and have much less angst over moving into roles they are not qualified for," said Jane Stevenson, who oversaw the study. She is based in Atlanta as vice president of board and CEO services at Korn Ferry.

Stevenson said men tend to have the attitude of "Give me the opportunity, and I'll build the skills." They also have a much more developed work network, she told SHRM Online.

"There are key roles in most organizations that are viewed as critical-passage kinds of roles and there are very limited numbers of those roles. … It takes a good 10 to 15 years to develop to become a CEO because you need several different types of roles to [showcase] your ability to lead the company overall."

Become More Visible

The study found a consistent lack of self-promotion among the women who rose to C-suite roles.

As Stevenson observed, "It's not just what you know or who you know but who knows what you know," and women need to be comfortable networking, talking about their accomplishments and expressing their interest in taking on greater roles at their organizations.

"There is a certain level of packaging and visibility [involved]" to rise to CEO, she said.

Panelist Roslyn "Roz" Brooks, managing director in PwC's government, regulatory affairs and public policy office in Washington, D.C., learned that lesson.

"For the longest time, I thought if I do good work I'll get recognized and it'll be fine. And it was for a while," she said. She said she finally realized that everyone did not know about her efforts and the importance of using "the corporate lingo" to communicate that.

Additionally, organizations need to frame leadership roles to appeal to women's sense of purpose and desire to have an impact on the organization, their community, or the world at large, Stevenson said.

"When you are marketing something in the world, you market it to the audience you're speaking to," she pointed out. Because such a small percentage of CEOs are women, "it has not occurred to us to think how are we going to articulate [leadership] roles that connect with this audience of women leaders."

Other key findings:

  • Nearly 60 percent of the women had demonstrable expertise in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (40 percent) or in business/finance/economics (19 percent)—fields where they could prove themselves with precise, definable outcomes.
  • There is no one direct path to the top.
  • Being driven by a challenge was a stand-out trait for female CEOs.
  • Study participants highly value the contributions of others and team collaboration.


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