Insights from Women CEOs

Harry Greenspun, M.D.

Chief Medical Officer, Managing Director, Health Solutions

Korn Ferry

March 6, 2018

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One of the most rewarding parts of my role is to moderate our monthly webinars. With each, we gather a group of experts on a topic and, with typically just a light deck to keep the audience oriented, begin a spontaneous and enlightening conversation. Aside from the occasional technical hiccup, they tend to go pretty well, addressing critical issues in healthcare leadership.


This past week was particularly fascinating, as we tackled female leadership and how it ties into the broader issues of diversity and inclusion, pay equity, and beyond. Joined by my colleagues Katie Bell, Pat Melford, and Evelyn Orr, we started by reviewing a recent piece of our research


We had interviewed female executives from Fortune 500 companies to gain a more nuanced understanding of:

  • The common personal attributes and workplace experiences that aided and prepared these women to become CEOs

  • The factors that led to promotions at key junctures in their careers

  • How the women overcame the organizational barriers they faced

  • What recommendations we can offer to accelerate development, fill the pipeline and prepare women for the CEO role


Many of the results weren’t surprising. For example, women are underrepresented in the c-suite, which is especially astonishing in healthcare given the skewed proportion of women in our industry’s workforce. Others were – when first named CEO, women are four years older and have held one additional senior position compared to men. While some might suggest women might take longer to get promoted as many take time away to devote to raising families, the fact that they held these additional senior roles disputes that. As Evelyn put it, “Women seem to have to run an extra lap to get promoted.”


One of the key insights of the interviews was that female leaders tended to follow four distinct pathways to prepare for their CEO role.

  • Lifelong learning –These leaders focused on finding new challenges by acquiring new skills and experience. Interestingly, it supports other studies’ findings that women leaders must be “over-credentialed” to get a role.

  • Bird’s eye – Some sought to get roles that gave them an enterprise perspective.

  • Innovation/Growth – Not surprisingly, since many of these companies put a high value on sales, many women leaders were able to advance by building new business.

  • Career Building – Finally, another group focused on pursuing a path and avoiding distractions. These women declared early on, “I want to be a CEO” and set out on a quest to achieve that.


We wrapped up the webinar with some advice about smart next steps.


Our advice for women:

  • Run, do not walk, toward P&L experience
  • Seek and learn from challenges
  • It’s about who you know, what you know, and who knows what you know


Our advice for mentors:

  • If you see potential, say something
  • Coach on business skills
  • Explain roles and assignments in context of future possibilities


Our advice for companies:

  • Be transparent when identifying potential leaders
  • Watch the feeder pool and avoid filtering out women at each stage
  • Frame executive roles and the CEO role to appeal to women


As we wrapped up, I reflected on my own experience working with some amazing female leaders, having not appreciated what it took for many of them to get where they are. Moreover, I reflected on the many women I have mentored over the years. While I feel I have provided them with valuable insight and coaching, until now I had not appreciated that there is an entire dimension of career development that I overlooked.


Learn more about the study and our findings here.