A hidden reason women struggle to make it to top leadership roles


While accounting firms have made advances in diversity and inclusion in recent years and women have pushed harder to be promoted into senior leadership positions, research shows that one alarming factor still keeps women from getting to the top leadership positions: a lack of distinct, critical leadership experience in key areas required at senior levels. In fact, our research at Korn Ferry, a leadership and talent consulting services company, shows that when women get to the senior ranks, they are one full level behind their male counterparts in leadership experience.

“There needs to be a shared responsibility for women to become self-aware of what they envision for their career and for the organization to support a strategy to get there,” said Korn Ferry Managing Principal Peggy Hazard. “Understanding which experiences matter for promotion is a key step.”

The study showed that while women across a variety of professions rank higher than men overall in competencies, they do not gain the experience in challenging/difficult situations, business growth, financials, strategy, and high visibility—all hallmarks of competencies needed at top levels. The study also shows that while men and women report similar motivations to climb the ladder, women often either say “no” to these critical opportunities or they are not asked because it is assumed family obligations will get in the way. This may account for why men have an upper hand when they come up for promotion consideration.

Korn Ferry’s research found that with the exception of confidence, women generally score higher than men in all dimensions of leadership style and in most of the skills and competencies deemed necessary for senior leadership success, such as employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and building talent. “What they are missing are the experiences that their male counterparts seek out during midlevel and business-unit-level roles,” said J. Evelyn Orr, senior director of the Korn Ferry Institute and editor of Korn Ferry’s research on women in leadership. “Women need to actively raise their hands and say ‘yes’ to experiences that stretch their skills, and organizations need to provide women with opportunities to accept those challenges earlier in their careers.”

In the United States, only 24 Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, and women occupied just 17% of board seats at those same companies. When you look at the accounting profession, the numbers are not much better. According to the 2013 AICPA report on trends in the supply and demand of public accounting talent, in CPA firms with more than 50 employees, women make up only 17% of partners.

What is compelling, however, is that studies show that having a critical mass of female leaders across the organization and at the top is proven to have a direct correlation with better financial return. Both Catalyst and McKinsey have reported significant differences in return for organizations that have women represented at the board and on executive committees. McKinsey’s Women Matter study measured a 41% higher return on equity and 56% higher earnings before interest and taxes margin for companies that have the largest share of women on their executive committees.

The motivation for firms to develop their female leaders is evident and requires that firms and women work together to ensure that women are adequately prepared to assume senior roles.

What can women do to ensure they obtain the necessary experiences as they move up in their careers?

Think about where you are going. It’s surprising how many people have not stopped to consider what’s important to them and where they are headed. It’s important to take the time to pause and really figure out what matters to you, how hard you are willing to work, and how work fits in with the rest of your life.

Talk to people in your destination role. If you know what role you’d like to occupy, talk with people who are in that role and ask them about what experiences they feel prepared them and what they wish they had experienced before assuming the responsibility.

Learn about what precise experiences, competencies, and skills are needed. What got you here will not get you there. The challenges and competencies needed in a more advanced role are different from those needed in your current one. Learn about what you will need to change, what you will need to let go of, and what could be potential obstacles to success.

Develop leadership skills, not just technical and client relationship proficiency. As a CPA, your technical skills and client relationship acumen are top priorities, and these do not change as you advance to partner and into potential executive positions. What does change is your need for more highly honed leadership skills, such as influencing, inspiring, and developing people, and executive presence.

Seek advocates. Women often have a hard time promoting themselves and highlighting their own skills and accomplishments. And given the negative correlation between success and likability for women, it makes intuitive sense that they like to stay subdued about their achievements. This is where carefully selected advocates can come in handy. An advocate can come in many forms—a boss, a mentor, a sponsor, a colleague. What’s important is having someone who will speak to your accomplishments when you are not in the room, represent the value you bring to the organization in front of the people who make decisions, and look out for you when challenging assignments and promotions are being handed out.

Find mentors and coaches. Having several mentors is more beneficial than one. This gives you a variety of perspectives and insight—and be sure to seek out male mentors as well. They have much to teach and can help you navigate a male-oriented mindset or culture.

Stop saying “no.” Too many women hesitate and turn down opportunities from feeling unprepared or that it is simply bad timing. Women who are driven to advance their careers need to be aware that a succession of decisions that involve hesitating, opting out, or taking the safe, familiar path or comfortable choice may damage their careers in the future.

Be intentionally visible. You may possess great leadership potential, but if you never participate in highly visible committees, volunteer for big accounts, or “join the boys” in golf outings and conferences, you will remain invisible and overlooked. Being known and being present matters.

Help out your colleagues—male and female. Men also need advocates and mentors, and you have the opportunity to step up and lend your insight and expertise as well. Kindness and generosity are sometimes overlooked in the rush of business, but they are rarely forgotten.

Own your career. There are as many excuses as there are reasons that women do not advance to higher leadership levels. And there will always be challenges to overcome. Own your career and be intentional and mindful in where you’re going and how you plan to get there.

Accounting firms have the opportunity to support female accountants by creating women’s leadership development programs, setting up mentoring initiatives, and being inclusive of women in consideration for committees and executive roles.

Conclusively, the research shows that women remain a hidden power source for most companies. What can women and firms do to start leveraging this force right away? “We recommend focusing on three key areas: motivations—discern the individual motivators for high-potential women; experiences—offer women the right skill-building and high-visibility challenges; and, lastly, relationships—women need access to executives through mentoring and networking,” Hazard said. “The glass ceiling is real, but so are the tools that women and firms have at their disposal to break those barriers.”

Michael C. Hyter ( michael.hyter@kornferry.com ) and Charles Eldridge ( chuck.eldridge@kornferry.com ) are Korn Ferry senior partners.

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