Women in Leadership: Understanding the C-Suite Success Profile
Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Data shows that organizations with women on their boards and executive teams are more likely to be successful, but women continue to be underrepresented. Talent Management Best Practice Series: Women in Leadership, a recently released report from Korn/Ferry International, examines obstacles women face in reaching the top.

Are women held to higher standards? Do women lack key qualifications? Are women’s qualifications underestimated? Is this a perception issue or an experience issue? Is this a confidence issue or a motivation issue?

In an effort to find answers to these questions and others, Korn/Ferry started by developing a research-based profile of successful C-suite executives. The C-Suite Success Profile provides a template for comparison between male and female executives, including key leadership competencies and common differences in motivations and behaviors between men and women.


According to Women in Leadership, C-suite executives are motivated differently than leaders at other levels. They are expected to handle competing stakeholders and demand, such as “provide a vision for the company, build credibility and demonstrate strong leadership, build organizational talent and capabilities, and engage the workforce and create a high performance culture.” Report contributors found that executives who “choose to take on these challenges are most motivated by influencing the direction of an organization, driving hard to exceed performance expectations, and believing in the mission of the organization.”

And although there was a lot of similarity in the top motivators between men and women, data reveals that differences also occur. Men emphasize a “broader scope of responsibility, influence, and performance,” and women seem to favor “stimulating work that gives a sense of personal accomplishment in a friendly environment.”



In terms of style and skill, all C-suite executives must integrate complex data, envision strategic solutions, stay socially attuned, inspire other people, thrive in ambiguity, exude confidence, and drive hard for results. Women in Leadership reviewed data from Korn/Ferry’s Decision Styles tool, an online assessment that captures the Leadership Styles and Thinking Styles based on an individual’s self-reported responses about their preferred approach, to examine style and skill differences between genders. The assessment looks at whether C-level executives are:

  • integrative —able to take in and process highly complex data
  • socially attuned —able to perceive subtle signals, process complex social information, and inspire others
  • comfortable with ambiguity —able to wing it and make “good enough for now” decisions
  • confident —willing to take risks and handle conflict. 

The report concludes that “with the exception of confidence, women generally score higher than men in all these dimensions. Overall, gender differences between executives are subtle, and manifest mostly in social situations — as opposed to when working alone. But the style differences that do exist appear to emerge early and persist over time.”

Experience provides key lessons that help leaders prepare for future roles. Women in Leadership asserts that “female executives who want to advance to higher organizational levels need to understand which experiences will help them do so.” The report identifies such experiences as opportunities that involve “strategic thinking, ongoing collaboration with other functions, implementing new initiatives or change efforts, making high-stake decisions, and confronting others when projects falter.”

But are women seeking out these types of experiences, and are they being tapped by their organizations for these types of experiences? In an effort to answer these questions, Korn/Ferry compared male and female leaders at several organizational levels in five key areas of experience:

  1. business growth
  2. operational
  3. high visibility
  4. self-development
  5. challenging/difficult.

According to the data, “although men and women were equally likely to have self-development and challenging/difficult experiences, women had fewer business growth, operational, and high-visibility experiences.”
Bottom line 

Talent Management Best Practice Series: Women in Leadership seeks to understand what is most important at top executive levels, in an effort to help “women focus their development efforts in areas that will help their careers.” Report findings have implications for what individual women can do to advance their own career and for what organizations can do to minimize barriers for talented women. And they indicate that motivators and experience are the places to start.

More important, report contributors contend that “by understanding women’s natural strengths and areas that need development, organizations can work to ensure that they are providing the right development opportunities to them.”

To learn more, download Talent Management Best Practices Series: Women in Leadership.

About the Author
The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.
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