Female and male leaders: What drives them and what makes them successful?

Several studies by the headhunting giant Korn/Ferry looked into success factors and strengths of senior executive men and women. One finding may almost sound as an insult, when they say that women ‘are as qualified as men to lead an organization in top executive roles’. Their reports make up for this by showing how women outperform their male counterparts in more leadership skills than men outperform women. The studies, however, also confirm some of the sad anecdotal information that Diversity practitioners have come across frequently.
What makes a successful top manager and what motivates people to go for a leadership position? Korn/Ferry asked some 20,000 managers (15K men, 5K women) to rank their most important motivators to be an engaged leader and they found that both gender groups are driven by several of the same stimuli. More than 35% of male and female interviewees valued factors like stimulating, challenging work, influence on the organisation’s direction, personal accomplishment and work/life balance. In comparison, monetary compensation, expert status and a stable job were not ranked highly by either women or men. The few differences between the genders were interesting: Men valued a broader scope of responsibility, influence and performance more often whereas women rather emphasized personal accomplishment or a friendly workplace. It must be noted that the motivators for men are generally known as characteristics of higher positions, whereas the motivators for women can also be found in many levels of an organisation!
Another study used the Korn/Ferry Decision Styles tool, an online assessment which included about 3,600 men and 820 women capturing their leadership and thinking styles through self-reported responses. The findings were compared with success characteristics of C-level leaders, including integrative, socially attuned, comfortable with ambiguity and confident. Findings show that, with the exception of confidence, female executives generally scored higher than their male colleagues in all these dimensions! But gender differences are subtle and play out mostly in social situations. The differences that exist, however, emerge early in a career and usually persist over the whole time of employment. In this light, the few significant gender differences are quite interesting to point out: In leadership style, men are more task-oriented than women, while both genders are similar in social, intellectual and participative leadership aspects. In thinking styles, female executives had higher scores in creative thinking than men and both were similar in action-focused, flexible and complex thinking. Finally, in emotional styles, women score higher on ambiguity tolerance, empathy and energy, which can be understood as mental tenacity. The report concludes that ‘female executives are more aligned than male executives with the best-in-class profile for C-level leaders’. “The findings confirm that companies have overlooked top talent for many years, while they promoted mediocre candidates”, Diversity expert Michael Stuber comments. And he agrees that other factors have often influenced – or biased – the promotion decisions.
Experience, in terms of achieved business growth, operational excellence, high visibility, self-development and mastering challenging / difficult situations, has been identified to be most helpful in getting a manager to higher level leadership positions. Korn/Ferry’s analysis of 5,600 men and 1,500 women found that female executives were on par with their male peers on self-development and challenging / difficult experiences, but they lagged them in business growth and high-visibility experience, both of which were identified to be most helpful for career advancement. For visibility, the gender gap widened with each leadership level until female senior executives only reported as much high-visibility experience as their male colleagues one level below!
Finally, Korn/Ferry obtained additional data through the VOICES online surveys including 4,460 men and 1,900 women across all levels. The findings prove that not only women hold themselves to high standards; also others (including men) hold females to higher standards than they do with males. This result confirms the perception of many women who speak about an uphill battle they are fighting in a corporate environment. In addition, it illustrates that perfectionism is likely to be one of the self-inflicted barriers for women when they are aiming for challenges and advancement. This female ambition, in turn, may also fuel the high expectations others have when they observe women in non-stereotypical roles.
Although emerging from a variety of data sources, the various results presented by Korn/Ferry provide additional evidence for some of the key questions related to women’s advancement to senior positions. Less so regarding barriers, for which ample research has been consolidated in holistic models, but more related to success factors and how these vary for men and women respectively. What drives and characterises female or male leaders, and what do they bring to the party in terms of experience and skills: These are the key aspects companies need to take into account if they want to consistently develop future leaders that are best able to cope with challenges lying ahead.