Aspiring young women who want to one day run a big business are often advised to choose this particular career path: go to the most prestigious university you can, get a bachelor's degree, handpick a business school, do an MBA and then get a job at a top consulting firm or investment bank. After that it's like hopscotching from firm to firm, getting more important positions and taking on more responsibility.
That's what we've been taught from our undergraduate days through the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School days, and that's roughly what Meg Whitman's experience has been, and Sally Blount, the only woman in the top 10 business school deans in the world and dean of the Kellogg School of Management, recently said:
"If we want the brightest young women to be great leaders ...... we have to convince more women ...... that they should be in jobs that matter." For her, "important work" is "the most competitive industries, such as investment banking and management consulting."
We decided to analyse this statement by applying the analytical skills we had refined at great expense to examine the career paths of 24 women leaders in Fortune 500 companies. The results of this analysis took us by surprise.
The majority of women leaders in Fortune 500 companies do not go straight into the "most competitive industries". Only three women entered consulting firms or banks right out of university. More than 20% of female CEOs worked for the same companies after graduation that they now run. At the time, their jobs were not ideal. Mary Barra, now CEO of General Motors, started as a paid intern at the company, and Kathleen Mazzarella started as a customer service representative for Grella Electric, a company she became CEO of more than 30 years later. They include Heather Bresch of Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Gracia Martore of Gannett Newspapers and Debra Reed of Sempra Energy.
Those who do not move from veteran to executive often climb a particular corporate ladder of advancement: decades at the same company before jumping to become CEO of another, as was the case with ADM CEO Patricia Woertz, who spent 29 years at Chevron. And then there's Avon CEO Sheri McCoy, who previously spent 30 years at Johnson & Johnson without being appointed CEO.
The survey results consistently show that steady focus leads to success. These women had been with the same company for a long and uninterrupted period of time before becoming CEOs, with a median of 23 years. To see if this is common, a random sample of male CEOs from the Top 500 was taken, and the median tenure of the men in the sample was 15 years. In addition, 71% of female CEOs were promoted by their own senior employees, compared to 48% of male CEOs. This suggests that women don't have much time to jump through hoops in the early part of their careers.
It is difficult to analyse what motivates most women to choose the same company for a long time in order to advance in their career path, nor is it possible to explain why their experience differs from that of their male colleagues. Optimistic explanations may include company support, the ability of mentors and the characteristics of women themselves. On the other hand, the difference in median time spent in the job before promotion between the genders may also be due to organisational structures that do not treat women very favourably, certain biases that can affect promotion and penalties for taking maternity leave. Whatever the underlying reasons, it is important to acknowledge that the common path to promotion for female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies is longevity.
A direct implication of long-term tenure is that company culture is critical for young, ambitious women. If being in the same environment for decades is a common pattern of advancement, then that environment should ideally help to grow the ambition of female employees, rather than stifle it. A recent Bain survey showed that the ambition and confidence of women who have just joined the workforce to become executives in large companies is on a par with or exceeds that of men, yet by the middle of their careers, the ambition and confidence of men remains the same and that of women declines significantly. For long-term retention, companies that can keep women employees confident and motivated on their career path are better than those that leave people unmotivated.
Look back again at the traditional career advice. Prestigious universities? Meg Whitman comes from a prestigious school, which seems to make academic background seem like some kind of standard, and she is one of only two women to have graduated from an Ivy League undergraduate degree and run a Fortune 500 company. (It doesn't seem to be a gender issue. Only 4% of the men in our sample graduated from Ivy League schools.)
Working in consulting and banking at the start of a career is also not a necessary prerequisite: 3/4 of the public CVs in the sample did not include references from these two industries. A reputable MBA program is also not a mandatory requirement; only 25% of women and 16% of men have an MBA from a top 10 ranked school. In short, for Fortune 500 CEOs, both men and women, getting a traditional badge of honour, or even collecting a bunch of them, may help their careers, but is by no means a decisive factor.
Of course, the world has changed now that CEOs once chose to stay with one company for many years. the average age of the 24 female CEOs of the Fortune 500 is 56, and the path to promotion may not have been the same after all these years. But the youngest of these female CEOs, Heather Bresch of Mylan Pharmaceuticals, aged 45, still has a progressive path of advancement from veteran employees. She started out printing drug labels at Mylan's facility in Morgantown, West Virginia, and over 20 years took on more and more responsibility, eventually becoming the company's CEO.
For young women aspiring to lead large companies, those previous pieces of advice may need to be changed. The part of these women CEOs' stories that can inspire young women is just as important: regardless of academic background, you can be dedicated to the company, work hard, prove yourself capable of doing multiple jobs and eventually move up to the top. These female CEOs didn't go to the best schools or get the most prestigious jobs, but they did find a good starting point and then slowly worked their way up the ladder.