What’s Motivating Your Women Leaders?

Leadership StrategiesCareer TransitionsDiversityCulture RiskSuccession PlanningBoard and CEO AdvisoryCEO SuccessionC-Suite SuccessionDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
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Margot McShane
January 24, 2023
12 min read
Leadership StrategiesCareer TransitionsDiversityCulture RiskSuccession PlanningBoard and CEO AdvisoryCEO SuccessionC-Suite SuccessionDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
Executive Summary
To make sustained progress toward gender equality, companies must recognize that women leaders’ motivations are different than men’s.
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Women leaders are leaving their roles at the highest rate ever. Given that women are already drastically underrepresented at the leadership level, this mass departure is cause for significant concern.

For decades, much has been written about the gender divide in our broader workforce, particularly when it comes to the differences between how men and women approach and experience work. Women and men leave organizations for different reasons; they engage with team members differently; and there are different expectations attached to their personal lives. Russell Reynolds Associates’ 2022 Global Leadership Monitor further explores “The Great Breakup”—what researchers at LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company1 are calling this exodus of women from the workforce—from a leadership perspective. We found that, despite having near identical skillsets, fewer women leaders are interested in pursuing the CEO role than men. Furthermore, as our data explores in detail below, the top reason women in the C-suite left their roles in the past year was because they felt undervalued by their organizations. The top reason men left their jobs? Seeking better pay. Simply put: women and men have different motivators.

quote

“This all comes down to motivation. Women frequently go through more complex, multi-variable calculations every time they have to make a career decision. This, of course, affects how they consider leadership opportunities.” 

-Margot McShane

 

Now, “the Great Breakup” signifies that women leaders are reprioritizing their lives. On one side of the ledger: all the roles they play, both within and outside of the workforce. On the other: career engagement and growth.

To get more women into leadership and retain the women executives already in place, organizations can reframe career growth—or even the top roles themselves—as something that could improve every aspect of women leaders’ lives and, by extension, the organization’s success.

 

Relative to the population, women are far from well represented on leadership teams.

As we explore in our recent article, “Gender Diversity in the C-suite, ” while women account for 47% of the US workforce benchmark, they account for just 28% of executives in the S&P 100.

 

Figure 1: Leadership demographics: men vs. women

Leadership demographics: men vs. women

Source: RRA Proprietary Analysis, S&P100 Leadership Teams, 2022 (n=100 companies, 1583 executives); Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021, “Employed persons by detailed industry, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity,” https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.html

 

Additionally concerning, women find even less representation in roles of power and influence. Less than 9% of CEOs in the S&P 100 are women. The traditional CEO feeder roles of CFO, COO, and P&L leaders also show a significant underrepresentation for women, meaning that the pipeline of potential CEO candidates is equally unbalanced, perpetuating the problem.

With women leaders departing their roles at historically high rates, we can expect this gap to grow even more stark in the coming years. This will be detrimental to what little progress has been made in increasing women’s representation at the leadership level.

 

Despite having the same skillsets, fewer women leaders are interested in pursuing the CEO role than men.

According to Hogan Leadership data, there are no meaningful differences between the leadership skillsets of C-suite men and women. Furthermore, multiple studies show that women are actually better managers than men.

However, our Global Leadership Monitor showed that far fewer women are interested in the CEO role than men. Only 29% of C-suite women agree that they have a career goal to become a CEO, compared to 49% of C-suite men. The story isn’t much different for next generation leaders as, again, 29% of women in this population have a goal to become a CEO, compared to 40% of next generation men.2

29 %

of C-suite women have a career goal of becoming a CEO

49 %

of C-suite men have a career goal of becoming a CEO

When setting career goals, we know that representation and mentorship at the leadership level is crucial. Given that women’s representation at the CEO level is already so low (remember, less than 9% of S&P 100 CEOs are women), it isn’t a stretch to consider whether many women leaders have written the CEO role off as an impossibility.

Related, men are more likely to believe they are qualified—and to put themselves in the running—for a CEO role, said Margot McShane co-leader of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Board and CEO Advisory Partners. Women, on the other hand, often need to be asked, as they tend to undervalue their own skills for myriad reasons—fear of backlash over seeming “too aggressive,” cultural differences, or lack of bandwidth between work and home responsibilities.3 Not wanting to accommodate these repercussions may translate to not wanting the chief executive role.

 
quote

Historically, the norms around what a successful career arc looks like were set up by and for men. They don’t take into consideration the complexities that women face to accelerate their careers while also having children. Companies that allow for longer ramp times to the C-suite—by extension, allowing for more freedom and flexibility for women and men caregivers—will be the winners.

-Jenna Fisher

Finally, the pandemic’s effects on the global workforce may also offer some insight. Women are bringing updated expectations to the workforce. Our May 2022 research on leadership wellness found that, post-pandemic, employees and leaders’ motivations broadened to include mission orientation, flexibility, a community focus, and overall well-being, in addition to the historically typical motivators like financial incentives and career growth opportunities. Lean In and McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace” report confirms that this expanded paradigm is increasingly important for women. If the CEO role has not been modeled as a job that allows for this balance, it may not be as attractive to women leaders.

 

Men in the C-suite are more likely to leave an organization for better pay, while women leaders are more likely to leave for a desire to feel more valued.

There were myriad reasons why executives left roles in 2022. According to our Fall 2022 Monitor, while historically predictable motivators like career advancement and better pay were the most commonly reported reasons overall, a desire to feel more valued by an organization came in a close third, highlighting some stark—although perhaps predictable—gaps between how appreciated men and women executives feel in their roles.

Women in the C-suite were more than twice as likely than C-suite men to leave a role due to wanting to feel more valued by an organization, making it the most cited factor amongst women executives who left their roles in the past year.  Additionally, women leaders were twice as likely than men to leave roles in search of new responsibilities. Seeking a different type of leadership and career advancement were also top reasons women leaders left their jobs.

Conversely, the top reason C-suite men left their roles was a tie between seeking a different company culture and better pay. For women, these factors were ranked fifth and sixth, respectively.

 

Figure 2: Reasons C-suite leaders left their roles – men vs. women
Respondents who indicated they had recently changed organizations, taken time off, or left to start their own company, were asked to identify the top 3 reasons for doing so from a list of 19 possible reasons.

Reasons C-suite leaders left their roles men vs. women

Source: Q4 2022 Global Leadership Monitor, Russell Reynolds Associates, n=131 global C-suite respondents

 

The story isn’t much different with next generation women leaders, as 59% of next generation women leaders reported leaving their organization for career advancement and 53% left to find an organization that made them feel more valued. Again, next generation women were nearly two times more likely than men (29%) to leave a role to feel more valued elsewhere. Next generation leaders’ experience matters, as it affects who will be in the C-suite five to ten years from now.

 

Figure 3: Reasons next generation leaders left their roles – men vs. women
Respondents who indicated they had recently changed organizations, taken time off, or left to start their own company, were asked to identify the top 3 reasons for doing so from a list of 19 possible reasons.

Reasons next generation leaders left their roles men vs. women

Source: Q4 2022 Global Leadership Monitor, Russell Reynolds Associates, n=131 global C-suite respondents

 

84%

of C-suite women feel motivated
by their organization’s mission and purpose.

 

It’s not surprising that women leaders feel undervalued. Despite some progress toward gender equality in leadership, it still takes women longer to get promoted than men, and few make it to the top of the corporate ladder. A recent study at a retail chain organization showed that managers tend to underestimate women’s future performance abilities. While women were more likely than men to receive a high performance rating, they were also more likely to receive a low rating in potential.4  That’s incredibly demotivating.

However, this does not suggest that women in the C-suite are less engaged in their company’s purpose than their male counterparts. In fact, 84% of C-suite women reported feeling motivated by their organization’s mission and purpose, compared to 74% of C-suite men. While it’s encouraging that most women leaders feel engaged by their company’s purpose, our data shows that mission-alignment is not enough to keep them at a company that doesn’t make them feel valued.

Consider a company that wants to make a counteroffer to a woman executive who is planning to leave her organization. While increasing pay may halt her immediate exit, it doesn't address the root cause of the problem: feeling undervalued. Organizations should be mindful to diagnose the real reasons behind women leader departures and work to find ways to make systemic changes.

 
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Women are more likely than ever to realize that there is real range in the extent to which different organizations value and respect them. Now, women are ‘voting with their feet.’ This will cause some companies to win and others to lose.

-Dean Stamoulis

Looking forward: engaging and retaining women leaders

The current talent landscape is complicated. Over the past few months, we have seen massive layoffs from major global players as recession fears mount. On the other hand, even as quitting slows globally,5  retaining key talent continues to concern leaders, with buzzy terms like “quiet quitting” and “The Great Breakup” standing in for anxiety around employee and leadership engagement. These phrases may be new but they represent continued structural issues within our workforce, particularly for women leaders.

To make substantial and sustained progress toward gender equality, companies must first recognize that women leaders’ motivations are different than men’s. Therefore, their mentorship, support, and career planning must function differently as well. To account for this, organizations can:

  1. Automatically include women leaders in succession processes and allow them to opt-out, rather waiting for them to actively opt-in: When all qualified applicants are in the running for leadership positions, the gender gap narrows.  Allowing women to opt-out of the running, rather than asking them to force their way in, sends the message that everyone is qualified and under consideration for top positions.

  2. Fit the job to the candidate; don’t ask the candidate to fit to the job: Instead of presenting leadership roles as inflexible molds that women leaders must squeeze into, what if we reframed growth opportunities for women by asking, "What would need to be true for you to take this job?" Recognizing that women leaders have a different set of responsibilities and priorities than men allows organizations to adapt roles, marrying skillsets with motivations to accommodate a new type of leadership.

  3. Give women access to a wider range of experiences that will better prepare them to be successful succession candidates: HR and L&D teams should construct more focused development programs that give women more “at bats,” and are intentional in plugging any potential missing business exposure and experience.

  4. Develop sponsors: Despite research confirming the important role that sponsors play in supporting the career advancement of underrepresented talent, we cannot assume that sponsorship is 1) happening at all and 2) effectively and inclusively championing others. Setting formal parameters around expectations for C-suite sponsors and establishing an intentional pairing process are important foundations.

  5. Bring awareness to bias: We cannot ignore the role of bias in talent processes. Efforts to introduce unconscious bias training in recruitment have grown and become a staple in many companies. Bias awareness training as part of internal talent reviews and succession planning needs to follow this path. When consistency and rigor are lacking, subjectivity and individual preferences are given space to grow.

  6. How do you know what’s motivating your women leaders? Ask them: Proactively ask women leaders how they are thinking about their career journeys and motivations, both in and outside the workforce. By embedding open dialogue into succession planning, organizations can keep the pipeline as inclusive as possible.

While our initial findings show that women make career decisions based on different criteria sets than men, the topic of women leaders’ motivation merits additional research and is an area that we will continue to monitor and explore.

 


 

Authors

Leah Christianson is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in San Francisco.
Margot McShane co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Board & CEO Advisory practice in the Americas. She is based in San Francisco.
Joy Tan is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in New York.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE AUTHORS AND THE CENTER FOR LEADERSHIP INSIGHT

The authors wish to thank the 1,500+ leaders from RRA’s global network who completed our 2022 Global Leadership Monitors. The authors would also like to thank several colleagues whose perspective helped shape these findings:

Jenna Fisher co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Financial Officers practice. She is based in Palo Alto.
Dean Stamoulis is a senior member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Board & CEO Advisory practice. He is based in Atlanta.

 

Additional RRA Reading

1. Russell Reynolds Associates’ Q4 2022 Global Leadership Monitor
2. Gender Diversity in the C-Suite
3. “Exploration of Gender Differences in C-Suite Data Across Industry and Reporting Relationships,” Hogan Talent Analytics, July 2022.
4. The New Wellness at Work: Improving Culture via Employee Well-being

 

External References

1 Alexis Krivkovich, Wei Wei Liu, Hilary Nguyen, Ishanaa Rambachan, Nicole Robinson, Monne Williams, Lareina Yee, “Women in the Workplace 2022,” McKinsey & Co, October 18, 2022.
2 Sangeeta Agrawal, Kimberly Fitch, “Why Women Are Better Managers Than Men,”  Gallup, October 16, 2014.
3 Arianne Cohen, “Women in Leadership: Recruiting to Close the Gender Gap,” Bloomberg, April 5, 2022.
4 Kelly Shue, “Women Aren’t Promoted Because Managers Underestimate Their Potential,” Yale Insights, September 17, 2021.
5 Kathryn Dill, “People Still Quit Jobs, but More Office Workers Are Staying Put,” The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2022.