According to a 2020 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women occupy 29.3% of chief executive roles in the U.S. This percentage has slowly increased over the years, having grown by 1.4% between 2015 and 2020. Yet, according to 2022 Catalyst research, women only hold 32 (6.4%) of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies.
Then there’s the statistic that men apply to jobs if they have only 60% of the qualifications whereas women don’t necessarily apply unless they feel they have met 100% of the qualifications. We interviewed several executives with their advice to women to move the needle so these numbers trend toward having more women in leadership positions and pursuing opportunities outside their comfort zones.
Considering that statistic where women typically apply to jobs only when feeling 100 percent qualified for them, Lisa Osborne Ross, U.S. CEO at Edelman, a global communications firm, said we need to “give ourselves some credit.” Ross, who leads with empathy and relies on humor to not take things too personally or too seriously, wants more women to know it’s okay to not check all of the job requirements off on a job application. “Women think they have to be ready on Day 1. We’re less conditioned to believe we can wing it because we value that preparedness so much. The truth is: we’re all figuring it out as we go. We have to equalize the playing field and give ourselves some credit.”
In addition, Ross said, “We overestimate other people’s capacities and abilities. While we overestimate theirs, we underestimate our own. We tend to think everyone is smarter and further along than us when in reality, they’re not. As women, we often think we’re the only ones who are insecure, but everyone’s insecure. I know white, male CEOs who struggle with imposter syndrome. I think it’s an important reminder as we set out to achieve our goals, whether it’s a new job or otherwise. If not me, then who?”
As it relates to skills, Ross indicated that too often women don’t get “next to the money like men do” and we don’t get to manage as many P&Ls. “I think it’s incredibly important to get more women and people of color into the business side – because you can only get that experience by doing it.”
As for another skill? Caryl M. Stern, executive director of the Walton Family Foundation, emphasized followship skills. “You need to hone your leadership skills, but you also have to hone your ‘followship’ skills. Being a true leader means learning how to be part of the team, not just leading the team. I don’t walk in the room and expect to be the smartest one. I walk into the room and expect to be the most open to hearing different perspectives. I need to have critical thinking skills to sort through what I’m hearing and to make the right decisions. For women interested in leadership, I recommend focusing on your decision-making, followship and team-centric skills.”
Dr. Janice K. Jackson, CEO of Hope Chicago, a nonprofit organization seeking to reduce economic and social inequity by funding postsecondary scholarships and non-tuition costs for Chicago public school graduates and adult family members, said traits of being a strong executive include hiring well, managing and monitoring the budget and spending time engaging with key stakeholders and employees. Also, “never stop learning.”
Another trait involves gaining experience, as Jackson said, to “soak up every opportunity.” Early in her career, she participated in volunteer opportunities for little or no pay. “But I gained valuable experience and access as a result. I would encourage people to learn every facet of the business.”
And if you can see it, you can be it — Jackson highlighted representation. “It is one thing to say we want more women leaders or minority leaders, but if people do not see them in those roles in their country, their fear or lack of confidence is coming from a very real and practical place. Not everyone wants to be the first or only. Speaking from experience, that is added pressure in a role that already has major responsibilities and stressors.”
Missy Godfrey, CEO of iOn Skincare, said the strongest skill set a CEO should lean into is resilience. “How you react to the ups and downs of business at every level of your career is a critical piece of the path to becoming a CEO. There is more pressure than you could ever imagine and decisions sometimes must be made very quickly, so you need intellectual and physical muscle memory.”
Godfrey compared a CEO to a conductor of an orchestra. “They may be the smartest one at the podium, but if they cannot lead the various instruments with the right sensitivity, appreciation and cadence to play the right notes that result in beautiful harmony, it really doesn’t matter how brilliant they are. Women should think of this as they learn and grow through their career experiences to become a CEO.”
When Godfrey worked as the first female operating partner at a merchant bank, wanted to bring more executive women into the operating group. During her outreach to friends, she was stunned to see hugely successful former CEOs decline because they “didn’t feel they had financial experience.”
“This simply wasn’t true, as CEOs don’t become CEOs without having some sort of fiscal responsibility, but it was all about perception versus reality,” said Godfrey. “In your journey to becoming a CEO, if you understand the fundamentals of your business and that you need to manage budgets against revenue, you are likely learning how to read a P&L along the way. If your brain likes to learn about finance, you can easily be intellectually curious and instigate conversations with your financial department to start to learn more, even if it’s early in your career and you’re just starting the learning curve. Also, public corporations and large companies will typically put a senior executive though a very rigorous financial training program to prepare them for the heavy finance work that comes with being a CEO.”
While honing skills like diving into finance, it’s also important to support women. Nicole Eckels, founder and CEO, Glasshouse Fragrances, recommended taking short courses to gain insight into how department works as well as shadowing executives who specialize in areas.
Supporting women is key. Eckels, said, “Going out of your way to support other woman is an excellent way to help. Ultimately, I think a willingness to help, by way of sharing knowledge, contacts, experience, without expectation of something in return, particularly if you have metaphorically ‘made it’ is very helpful to woman.”
Godfrey often reaches out to her network — her mentor and network are her support group as she would “be lost without them.” That said, Godfrey has learned that “no one knows everything so I still have to make decisions despite ambiguity.”
Supporting women is key. Desiree Gruber, founder and CEO of production company Full Picture, reached out to Stern in a prior role during her second week as CEO at UNICEF USA. Gruber had just moved to New York and invited Stern to dinner with either other women and asked her to be prepared to share the biggest problem she was worried about in her new leadership role. Well, Stern went to the dinner thinking eight women were also going to share their biggest problems. However, when Stern arrived, she realized that Gruber had invited eight women to support Stern so they could all give her advice on solving Stern’s biggest problem. During her first year in that role, this group became her “unofficial board of support” and now she joins this group in returning the support. Whenever another woman steps into her first big leadership role, Stern writes a note to welcome her into the club and supports her.
“As women, we have to remember the shoulders we stand on and how strong they are, and then look back and lean on them,” said Stern. “We also must have strong arms to reach back and pull other women up.”
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