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The 10 factors that got women CEOs to the top

Across Australia’s top 200 listed companies, only 14 women – that’s 7 per cent – have claim to the title of chief executive.

So, for the ones that made it: what were the factors behind their success? What makes them tick?

In the recently released major report Australian Women CEOs Speak, 21 women currently in or having occupied the position of CEO (or the equivalent) shared their experiences, career highlights, challenges, and key drivers of success that led them to the top job.

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1. Lead for the right reasons

Many women who found themselves in the top job actually didn’t want to be there.

“The most unexpected finding of this study is that the women who became CEO in Australia were decidedly not motivated by power,” the report said.

Instead, women are driven by a sense of purpose and intrinsic interest in their work, and prefer a collaborative leadership style rather than “dictating orders from the top”.

A number of women recounted anecdotes where they had turned down CEO roles or had to be asked multiple times – but this can be misconstrued as being disinterested in senior leadership, the report cautioned.

2. Lead in the right way

Women CEOS tend to eschew micromanagement for a collaborative and flexible leadership approach, the report found.

“They also scored highly on measures around being personally flexible and ability to roll with the punches, such as ‘Manages Ambiguity’, ‘Nimble Learning’, and ‘Situational Adaptability’.”

According to the report women in the top jobs also scored themselves lower in ‘leaderly’ competencies and more highly in people-skills and their collaborative approach suggests they emphasise sharing credit or have higher bars for feeling competent.

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Formal mentoring and training, alongside “tough and unpredictable” assignments that will stretch one’s abilities, will benefit aspiring women CEOs, the report advised

3. Chase global experience

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 70 per cent of the women interviewed reported significant experience working abroad.

“The opportunity to work in foreign countries can help people gain valuable insight into different business models and—most importantly for multicultural and trade-reliant Australia—different cultures.”

By accepting global opportunities, women were able to deal with new challenges, overcome their own blind spots, develop cross-cultural awareness, adopt new management styles of adapting to the individual’s particular culture or disposition, and even create a more diverse workplace.

4. Make your own path

If you’re after the top job, do you make and stick to a 5-year plan or do you wing it?

As it turns out, it doesn’t actually matter too much. About half of the women interviewed (11 of 21) said they followed a planned, structured career path – and the other half said they followed their sense of curiosity and desire to learn.

“I was asked, ‘How do you explain all the roles you’ve had?’ I said, ‘Probably the boredom factor’,” one female CEO said.

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5. Find mentors and coaches

Only half (11 of 21) women said they had mentors in their career – but some of these relationships were informal, or only relayed a single piece of advice that stayed with them.

Less than a third (6 of 21) women received coaching, and often this happened after they were already CEO.

The report stressed the importance of building relationships and networks that would contribute to a woman leader’s professional development.

“Some may offer broad leadership or career guidance, but future CEOs also need direction on the nuts-and-bolts of running the organisation and navigating the personalities of the senior leaders.”

6. Overcome ‘impostor syndrome’

Despite holding the most powerful position in the company, over one third of women in the study said they struggled with bouts of “painful” and “unwarranted” self-doubt and feeling like a fraud (or, as one woman described it ‘impostor syndrome’).

“I was appointed, and I thought, ‘This is great. This is what I wanted.’ And then I thought, ‘My God, I’m a complete fraud. They are going to realise now that I actually don’t know how to lead a division, and this is just going to be a disaster’,” said one woman CEO.

Acknowledging self-doubt was key, the report said. Respondents offered the following strategies for overcoming self-doubt: being open about and normalising your feelings; reflecting on successes; recognising one’s courage alongside the fear and tackling problems head-on; and updating your self-image.

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7. Face the ‘glass cliff’

Women tended to get offered leadership roles when it involved cleaning up someone else’s mess or the risk of failing was high – a phenomenon known as the ‘glass cliff’ or a ‘hospital pass’.

Of the 21 women interviewed, nearly half (9 of 21) said they became CEO under dire circumstances where the board had turned to them in desperation.

One respondent spoke of how most of the candidates in CEO succession discussion meeting were predominantly men until ‘emergency successors’ were discussed.

“Every one of the candidates was female … because you can rely on that competent woman in an emergency, but you wouldn’t want to go with her for the permanent role.”

8. Ask for help on the home front

Significantly, half (9 of 18) of the women CEOs who were also mothers had help with caregiver duties at some point throughout their career, with supportive partners working part time, quitting their jobs or retiring.

But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach: women need to find what works for them.

“Each woman found the strategy that worked for her own home life. In some cases, that meant household help. In others, partners stayed home. In some cases, both partners thrived with challenging careers.
“One interviewee stressed that no one is in a position to judge one approach or the other. Everyone is dealing with different circumstances; her advice to younger women is to do what fits their specific context.”

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9. Get on board(s)

Gaining exposure to company boards was a significant factor to the path of becoming a CEO, according to the report.

Board experience allows executives to see the bigger picture and build constructive working relationships with directors.

“What I learnt [on the board] was a lot about the business, so when I moved into the CEO role,
I knew where the hotspots were, what was working well, what wasn’t, and where we had issues
that needed to be addressed quickly,” one woman CEO said.

If the opportunities to develop board skills don’t present themselves to women, they should consider seeking out roles, the report advised.

10. Higher education

Most women CEOs held either honours or postgraduate qualifications, according to the report.