We often say that the Chief Executive role can be the loneliest position, and in the past year or two this has never been truer. There has been a significant increase in CEOs stepping down or being dismissed, and worryingly, a disproportionate number of female CEOs.
There is an obvious lack of representation which leads to the classic phrase of ‘it is lonely at the top.’ Last year, we better understood why. Female CEOs were being dismissed at a far higher rate than male CEOs – Russell Reynolds, a leading search firm, found it was due to more added pressure to outperform in their roles. With the progress we aim to make in the business world, why are expecting our female colleagues to have to continue to prove themselves any more than the men?
In 2023 alone, according to Russell Reynolds Associates global quarterly CEO index, we saw 106 new CEO openings – 17 of which were taken on by women. As someone who doesn’t like using statistics to make a point, even I couldn’t ignore the difference.
Making up only a tenth of global CEOs, women still had an extortionate difference in percentages when it came to reasons for leaving. 16% were likely to leave for personal reasons – just 5% of men stated the same. But when it came to being removed, the difference was 34% compared to 26%. It’s hard to ignore that we should be doing more to better appreciate and prevent this unfair pressure to deliver.
It’s important to note that Laura Sanderson is the UK lead, and co-lead of Europe, the Middle East, India, and Africa at Russell Reynolds. She is the perfect example of the impact female leaders can make – Sanderson is rightly calling out the lack of female representation when it comes to leadership. Sanderson is standing up and using her power to bring inclusion into the upper echelons of business. She has acknowledged the pressure put on female leaders, claiming there’s higher expectation to succeed because there just aren’t enough women in the critical leadership roles.
I have been fortunate enough to work with many special people in C-suite positions, including CEOs of some of the most prominent businesses in the world. As expected, the majority were male – and I have had the privilege to work with some brilliant female executives. Times have certainly changed, as there are now more women in nearly all the executive teams we get to work with, but it’s still badly insufficient.
This is part of the root cause. Talented women can feel isolated and lonely. This is made worse by many feeling they were pushed harder and had to earn their opportunity the hard and unrelenting way. This constantly being tested and pushed only gathers momentum should they get to the top job. Whilst this definitely gives them an edge, it also adds volumes of unnecessary pressure – all the time.
Safra Catz, Oracle CEO, stated perfectly, “The most significant barrier to female leadership is the actual lack of females in leadership.” Catz calls out the change we must make happen – give women the opportunities. There is no excuse to not have women as part of any executive decision making.
We are currently stuck in a vicious cycle – female executives are much more common today, but with the constant scrutiny of women CEOs, many are opting out of being isolated and the inevitable never-ending challenges and added pressure. We must make this a level playing field and provide opportunities in a much fairer and equitable manner.
Some of the best leaders I have worked with have been women and many bring the attributes necessary to succeed in building purpose led and performance driven businesses. They tend to be empathetic, empowering and supportive with their colleagues and they’re more patient and ready to learn. Most importantly, they understand inclusion because they’ve experienced the trauma of exclusion.
Despite men taking up most CEO positions, vacancies are still rising every year and women are not being considered – without realising it, it’s right in front of us. Women deserve better consideration and representing.
Whilst there has been much progress in getting women on boards, many are still far too homogenous – the chair and the board are still much more likely to appoint a male CEO that has a similar background to themselves – we are still much more comfortable with familiarity. But this limits growth. Forming a team that is both diverse and inclusive unlocks the next level of development and performance.
It enables so many women to feel that now that they can see someone who is like them at the top, they too can get there, but if they see them stressed out and not enjoying it, they will think again.
The role of a CEO is constantly changing, they don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, but they need to have an attitude and behaviours that will earn trust and respect from their team and their colleagues across the business. When a CEO leaves, stop looking for the best person for the job, start looking for the best person for the team. It will force you to look in more unorthodox places and at a broader range of capabilities.
Extraordinary times demand extraordinary inclusion.
Thought of the week:
There is room for everyone.
Tips for becoming an A player:
Everyone has blind spots, work on yours.
If you’re in complete control, you’re not being inclusive.
Push for more inclusion today
Give people a reason to smile
Change the situation or change yourself