A study of women CEOs

Mar 02, 2020

Their characteristics, differences from their male counterparts, and how to create an environment that fosters women leaders.

Women are scarce at the top of the org chart in both the AEC industry and the business world at large – just 6 percent of Fortune 1000 CEOs and a little more than 10 percent of AEC industry CEOs (according to Zweig Group data) are women. I recently read a report by the Korn Ferry Institute, “Women CEOs Speak: strategies for the next generation of female executives and how companies can pave the road.” The report describes a study of the characteristics of this small population, some of the differences between women CEOs and their male counterparts, and the efforts organizations can use to be receptive to and create an environment for future women leaders. I’ve summarized just a few of the many takeaways from this report below.

What drives this small percentage of women to achieve this high level of success? What defining characteristics set them apart? In order to answer this question, particularly with a focus on how this success can be replicated, Korn Ferry Institute studied 57 women who have been a CEO – 38 currently and 19 previously – at Fortune 1000-listed companies and others of similar size. With more than 40 percent of the women CEOs in this study holding an undergraduate degree in science, math, or engineering, there’s a strong argument that the suggestions in this report apply to the AEC industry.

Being driven by and seeking out challenges was a common attribute among the women studied. Challenge scores on the Korn Ferry assessment were in the 79th percentile for these women, indicating that these women not only preferred but sought out difficult work assignments. Low scores, 24th percentile, were seen in areas related to structure, or a desire for stability and predictability in work. Taken together, these scores suggest these women CEOs are deeply unmotivated by predictable jobs, and highly desirous of variety and a chance to tackle new problems.

What motivates these women?

The CEOs interviewed said they were motivated by a sense of purpose – the thought that one’s company could have a positive impact on its employees, community, or the world at large. In 68 percent of the interviews, CEOs gave detailed descriptions of creating a more positive culture and 23 percent considered this among their most important accomplishments.

The report also stated that this manifested in a higher percentage of women becoming interested in “turn-arounds” or becoming CEOs in organizations currently experiencing poor performance. In AEC firms, this research suggestions women leaders may be motivated to work at mission-driven firms, or likely to want to instill a higher purpose in their organization.

The report states that being driven to succeed in an organization doesn’t always manifest itself in the same way for women as it does for men. The women CEOs studied for this report scored higher in humility than the rest of the population and interviews suggested that they were less likely to self-promote, and less likely to be motivated by traditional career advancement.

Women in the AEC industry who have the propensity to become future leaders may not be motivated by technical or administrative jobs that require repetitive tasks – they also may be less likely to patiently “climb the ladder” or do the necessary politicking to succeed in certain organizations.

The female CEOs in this report were clear about the area where they felt they could’ve been better prepared: experience with boards and with other external stakeholders. Especially for women who have a background in technical work such as architecture or engineering, these traditional business skills such as operations and financial knowledge are areas where they may need extra experience, mentorship, or education.

There were many valuable takeaways in this report and I’d encourage anyone interested in promoting diversity and inclusion at their organization to take a look at it.

Click here to view the full report.

Christina Zweig Niehues is Zweig Group’s director of marketing and media. Contact her at czweig@zweiggroup.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.